Ethics in Governance

Good Governance in itself implies strict observance of ethical standards. It could even be said that governance without ethics is akin to a human body without a soul. In a democracy such as India, maintenance of ethical standards in governance is all the more important, since democracy is rule by the people, of the people and for the people. It goes without saying that those whom the people elect to manage their affairs should observe the highest standards in their public and private lives. If they do not do so, then they betray the trust that people have reposed in them. No true democracy can function effectively unless politicians and administrators, who are charged with the responsibility of ensuring the maximization of common good and welfare of the people, are seen as observing ethical standards in behaviour. It, therefore, follows that there should be a Code of Ethics for ministers and officials, and all their actions will have to be monitored, scrutinized and evaluated in accordance with this Code.

The Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2nd ARC) has submitted a report – the 4th Report – on Ethics in Governance. In doing so, the Commission has made far reaching recommendations on Ethics in politics and administration. Strangely enough, Government of India (Department of Personnel, Training and Administrative Reforms or DOPT in short) has shot down most of these recommendations. True, this may not be the last word on the subject, and Parliament will have to debate on the reports of 2nd ARC and finally decide on them. However, Government’s viewpoint on these recommendations does not augur well for these reforms and since Government is formed by a party in majority in Parliament, these well meaning and crucial recommendations are bound to be consigned to the dust bin of history. It is, therefore, essential that sufficient public pressure should be brought on the Government and the Members of Parliament to see reason and not let this golden opportunity to write a fresh chapter on governance slip away.

In order that public pressure is energized, it would be necessary to discuss some of the main recommendations of the 2nd ARC on Ethics in Governance and advance reasons why they should be accepted without any delay.

One of the main recommendations of the ARC pertain to the setting up of a Code of Ethics for Ministers, in addition to the Code of Conduct, in order to provide guidelines on how Ministers should observe the highest standards of constitutional and ethical conduct in performance of their duties. The Government’s response on this crucial recommendation is that no such Code of Ethics is required, as the Code of Conduct already exists and having another Code will amount to mere duplication and will not serve any purpose.

On another recommendation of 2nd ARC for having a Code of Ethics for civil servants, the Government’s response is that they agree with this recommendation, even though civil servants are governed by Conduct Rules and Regulations. So what is sauce to the goose is not sauce to the gander! The intention behind the ARC recommendation is to set standards for Ministers, Members of Parliament and Legislators and monitor them through a dedicated team in the Prime Minister’s office and Chief Minister’s office and bring them on public domain. Government of India has apparently no intention of making Ministers and Legislators accountable for maintenance of ethical standards for reasons best known to them. Why should there be hesitation in accepting these recommendations which are aimed at setting standards of ethics?

Another set of recommendations relate to electoral reforms. Under these are a) partial state funding of election expenses of candidates to prevent illegal and unnecessary expenditures on elections b) disqualification of members on basis of defection to be decided by President on the advice of the Election Commission and c) disqualification of candidates facing charges related to grave and heinous offences and corruption d) disqualification of members who realign midstream in coalition governments and e) appointments of Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners. On all these important recommendations, the Government’s view is that these matters are being discussed in other fora and, therefore, no action needs to be taken on them. If the right people are not elected to legislatures and parliament, then we cannot expect them to observe any ethical standards. It is, therefore, essential that all candidates who face serious criminal charges or charges of corruption are disqualified from standing for elections. When coalition dharma is violated and ministers opt to change horses midstream, they should be disqualified as members of legislatures. The unsavoury spectacle of Aya Rams and Gaya Rams will cease if anti defection laws are strictly enforced and members so defecting are disqualified of their membership of legislatures in a speedy manner. If these recommendations are well intentioned, and are absolutely necessary for maintenance of high ethical standards, why is Government shy of accepting them straightaway, instead of prevaricating?

Every citizen knows that corruption is gnawing away at the very vitals of our country’s economy and if not stopped in time, it might lead to anarchy and lawlessness, affecting the delicate social and moral fabric of the country. In this context, any recommendation which aims at preventing corruption or prosecuting corrupt practices should be welcomed with gusto. The 2nd ARC had suggested that the definition of corruption under the Prevention of Corruption Act should be enlarged to include gross perversion of the Constitution or its democratic institutions amounting to wilful violation of the Oath of Office, abuse of authority unduly favouring or harming someone, obstruction of justice and wilful squandering of public money. Government has not accepted this recommendation and has not assigned any reason for their decision. The citizens of this country have a right to know why Government has not accepted this recommendation. Corruption is not only taking or giving of bribes, it usually manifests itself in abuse of authority, obstruction of justice and squandering of public money. Have we not come across huge advertisements in the media extolling the performance of various Ministries of the Government of India or the State Governments, just prior to the announcement of elections? Is this not a corrupt practice? The answer clearly is in the affirmative, since it amounts to abuse of authority, squandering of public money for electoral gains and totally unethical.
Yet another important recommendation made by the 2nd ARC pertains to the appointment of an Ombudsman called the Rashtriya Lok Ayukta to enquire into all complaints against Ministers (except the Prime Minister), all Chief Ministers, persons holding office equivalent to a Minister and all Members of Parliament. Government’s response to this recommendation is that the Lok Pal Bill is pending before Parliament and therefore no action is called for at this moment. Public have a right to know why the Lok Pal Bill has not been enacted by Parliament even though it has been pending for more than a decade. Apparently, Government does not want to create any institution which will make Ministers and Members of Parliament accountable for their actions. However, Government have agreed with another recommendation of ARC to amend the Constitution to make it obligatory for States to establish the Lok Ayukta at the State level having jurisdiction over Ministers in the State Government, persons holding office equivalent to Ministers and Members of Legislatures. Here again, the Government has exhibited double standards. What is good for the States is not good for the Centre!

Yet another set of recommendations of the ARC pertain to permission to prosecute civil servants and removal of immunity of Members of Parliament for corrupt acts. In the case of civil servants caught red handed or where they are charged with amassing wealth in excess of known sources of income, the ARC recommended that prior sanction for their prosecution should not be necessary. It also recommended that Article 311 of the Constitution which provides protection to civil servants should be repealed while providing for protection to civil servants taking bonafide actions taken in public interest. Government have not accepted the recommendation for doing away with prior sanction in entrapment cases while stipulating that sanction for prosecution will be given within three months time. No reason have been advanced for rejecting the recommendation relating to repeal of Article 311 of the Constitution or removal of immunity for Members of Parliament for corrupt acts. This shows how entrenched bureaucracy and politicians agree to scuttle any move to make them accountable to the public.

There are several other recommendations of the 2nd ARC on Ethics in Governance which are no less important, but those discussed above are sufficient to highlight how utterly well meaning and crucial recommendations on setting up of ethical standards meet their waterloo at the altar of expediency and vested interests. Unless public pressure is brought on the Government and Parliamentarians, these recommendations will go the same way as similar exercises in the past. One could think of a public interest litigation to spur Government to take interest in these reform measures. But think about it, why should citizens have to take recourse to the courts in order to make governments work properly. Aren’t the Members of Parliament/Members of Legislatures elected by the people? If so, how can any elected government go against the will of the people or act against those recommendations aimed at making governance based on ethics and morality? Shouldn’t Government of India bring these issues for public debate and ascertain public support for them?

At the end of it all, we are left with one nagging question. When Government has no intention of accepting such excellent recommendations, why does it set up the ARC and waste public money and valuable time of its functionaries? I leave you to ponder.

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