Ministers and Ethical conduct : TR Baalu brazens it out
Using ministerial office for personal aggrandizement and nepotism are standard features of any politician.
TR Balu a minister in the central government, belonging to the DMK party from Tamil Nadu is no exception and has flatly refused to accept that he has committed any wrong in pressurising the Petroleum Ministry through the PMO.
Baalu issue rocks LS; lights, cameras turned off
NEW DELHI: Opposition attempts to stall proceedings in the Lok Sabha on the Baalu issue proved to be futile on Monday as a determined Somnath Chatterjee refused to adjourn the House. ( Watch )
In an unusual step, the Speaker ordered most of the lights in the House and television cameras to be shut off for a brief period as repeated attempts by him to let the House function did not find favour with the members.
The House witnessed unruly scenes with Opposition members trooping to the Well chanting slogans ‘dismiss Baalu’ and ‘save PMO from malpractices’. Treasury benches too resorted to sloganeering alleging “misuse” of PMO during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee tenure.
He also expressed “total annoyance” at the behaviour of the members and condemned it. “Please agree to no work, no pay principle,” the Speaker said.
He said the Opposition members should have given notice in accordance with the rules and procedures. “You do not want to give notice but want to stall proceedings,” he said and told the members that they were “misusing” their position.
The Opposition members finally relented to an appeal from Chatterjee and went back to their seats allowing the proceedings to continue.
NDA, AIADMK walk out of RS
Opposition NDA and AIADMK on Monday staged a walkout from the Rajya Sabha after their demand for suspension of Question Hour to take up the issue of alleged misuse of office by Shipping and Road Transport Minister T R Baalu was disallowed.
Soon after the House congratulated the scientists and engineers of ISRO for launching 10 satellites, AIADMK and BJP members were up on their feet demanding that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clarify his position on the issue.
V Maitreyan (AIADMK) said notices have been given for of Question Hour and demanded that the Prime Minister come to the House to explain what action was being taken against Baalu for allegedly seeking natural gas at concessional rates for firms run by his family.
BJP leaders, including Sushma Swaraj, also joined the chorus demanding a statement by the Prime Minister.
Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari observed that “there is nothing that can be heard” and asked the members to take their seats.
He said several notices for suspension of Question Hour had been received but they cannot be allowed. “Members can raise (their) concerns after the Question Hour,” he said calling for the first listed question of the day.
This prompted the NDA and AIADMK members to walk out of the House
At Baalu’s expense
“ WHAT IS wrong if I helped my son,” thundered Union minister T. R. Baalu in his defence. But that self- generated controversy made many DMK MPs and some select Union ministers gloat over the soup that Baalu landed himself in. So much so that a Union minister hosted a party and invited select DMK MPs to celebrate. Interestingly, Dayanidhi Maran was heard calling up many of his political friends to “ understand” the man called T. R. Baalu. In VHP, on the other hand, a seer reportedly said it’s the Ram ( Setu) effect. The beleaguered minister attracted the lord’s wrath for filing of an affidavit claiming that Ram is a myth.
Nail conflict of interest
Conflict of interest between a minister’s official duties and personal interests has reared itself again with allegations of lobbying against shipping and surface transport minister T R Baalu. The minister has admitted with astonishing candour that he spoke with petroleum minister Murli Deora for allotment of gas to a family-owned company. Not just that: The Prime Minister’s Office sent eight reminders to the petroleum ministry to expedite the allocation. Such brazen instances of official patronage occur with distressing irregularity in India.
Two years ago, Union communications minister Dayanidhi Maran came under the scanner for having threatened an industrialist for refusing to give a stake to his familycontrolled company, Sun TV. This prompted the leader of the opposition, L K Advani, to address a detailed letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the “extortionist conduct” of Maran.
Conflict of interest of ministers in western countries is governed by specific statutes setting out a detailed Code of Conduct, including post-employment restrictions for ministers and requiring rigorous adherence. In India, there is a significant gap as conflict of interest does not find mention in the Constitution or in any statute. The oath of office requires a minister to discharge duties “without fear or favour, affection or ill will”, but the consequences for a breach are not spelled out. There is a ‘Code of Conduct for Ministers’ issued by the cabinet secretariat. But it has no binding effect. It only requires a minister to divest himself from the conduct and management of any business.
The Supreme Court recognised this in the Jain hawala case where it approvingly referred to the Code of Conduct for ministers in Britain and issued directions insulating investigating agencies from political interference. The court referred to a similar position in England which led to the constitution of a committee headed by Lord Nolan on “Standards of Public Life”. The Nolan committee set out seven principles on public life — selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership — which is extremely relevant in today’s context.
The Supreme Court, referring to the principles, went on to say: “These principles of public life are of general application in every democracy and one is expected to bear them in mind while scrutinising the conduct of every holder of a public office… Any deviation from the path of rectitude by any of them amounts to a breach of trust and must be severely dealt with instead of being pushed under the carpet”. However, these directions remain a dead letter for the government and the political establishment, the emphasis being limited to declaration of assets. Regular allegations of conflict of interest require an institutionalised mechanism for addressing such issues.
The steep decline in standards of public life can be gauged from the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru, in the wake of allegations against his finance minister T T Krishnamachari for favouring Harish Mundhra with investments by LIC in Mundhra’s company, promptly set up an independent commission of inquiry by an eminent judge, M C Chagla. The commission submitted its report in one month leading to Krishnamachari’s resignation, the latter being held morally responsible. Although Nehru disagreed with the report, he permitted his minister to resign to uphold probity in public life, expressing disagreement only by personally going to see off Krishnamachari. It also speaks volumes for Nehru’s greatness that when it came to finding a replacement in his cabinet for Abul Kalam Azad, he chose Justice Chagla.
Today, we have a situation in which Baalu has confessed that he sought favours. Conflict of interest is not a criminal activity and at the highest level can be said to have more to do with upholding morality in public life. Prescription of a rigorous Code of Conduct making it enforceable by a committee of the concerned legislature will go a long way in avoiding instances of blatant favouritism. The shipping minister would not have been so brazen if an enforceable Code of Conduct had been in place.
The writer is an advocate.
( It was in June 1999, during the interim NDA rule, when Baalu got the allocation of 400,000 cubic meters block of gas by GAIL ( India) to King Hi- Power. The NDA Government had just been voted out of power in April 1999 after the AIADMK withdrew support.
The DMK soon aligned with the NDA and Baalu became Environment Minister. Negotiations between Kings and GAIL continued and as documents reveal, in November 2000, on Baalu’s insistence, the NDA government lowered the gas tariff to an unrealistic Rs 497 per TCM for a full three years. It was only in November 19, 2003, a month before the DMK withdrew support from the NDA ( December 20, 2003) that GAIL began negotiating charges to supply gas to King’s at a rate of Rs 750 per 1000 cubic meter.
On January 14, 2004, GAIL cancelled King company’s allocation for not signing the contract.)
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