Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu has been urging political parties to adopt a Code of Conduct for MPs and MLAs. He called upon the parties to evolve a consensus on such a code for their members, both inside and outside the legislature “so that people do not lose faith in political processes and institutions”.
Obviously, his advice was mainly intended to stop repeated disruption of the proceedings of the Parliament as in the last Lok Sabha. He mentioned specifically that the code should stipulate that members would not run to the well of the House, nor resort to sloganeering and disruption or any other unruly behaviour such as tearing papers and throwing them in the House. He asked parties to bar those indulging in such behaviour.
When political parties, who send law makers of the nation to Parliament as our honourable representatives are to be given such advice, something must be seriously wrong with the way our democratic institutions function.
The Vice-President also expressed concern over the tendency of Opposition parties in some States to boycott legislatures. In some others, eviction of members for unruly behaviour is reported. Some legislatures meet only for a very few days — all pointing to an over-all deterioration of public political discourse causing distrust in elected bodies among common people.
Will adoption of a Code of Conduct remedy the situation? Not certainly 100 per cent. But, strict adherence to the dictates of the code may discipline legislators once it becomes certain that violations will not be tolerated and will result in end of political career of the unruly members.
The Committee on Ethics was constituted in both Houses in 1997 to “oversee the moral and ethical conduct of the members and to examine the cases referred to it with reference to ethical and other misconduct of members”. The very first report of the committee was about preparation of a code of conduct for Rajya Sabha members which was adopted by Rajya Sabha in December 1998 and the details in 2005.
The Committee reminded the members that the responsibility to maintain public trust was reposed in them and they should constantly strive to translate the ideals laid down in the preamble of the Constitution in their functioning. About a dozen directives, mostly in the form of restraints, are given in this report, some general and others specific.
These include: not to do anything to bring disrepute to Parliament or affect their credibility; not bring private financial interests to come in conflict with public interests; not to take any remuneration or benefit for their role in the House, for questions, resolutions, voting, etc; not to accept any gifts except something incidental; not to disclose confidential matters; not to support any cause about which they have little knowledge; not to misuse their facilities and amenities; and not to show disrespect to any religion.
On the positive side, the code enjoins members to utilise their position to advance the general well-being of the people; keep private interests subordinated to public interests; keep uppermost in their minds Fundamental Duties; maintain high standards of morality, dignity, decency, and values in public life; and promote secular values.
Indeed, it is unbelievable that Rajya Sabha members have already set such high ethical standards for themselves. Even a cursory glance at these details may show the gap between the ideals adopted for our law makers and the reality we face. If it continues, chances are more for widening of the gap and practically nil for narrowing. The code has been in force for Rajya Sabha since 2005, but there is no code for members of Lok Sabha perhaps under the notion of respecting members directly elected by the people and giving them maximum freedom in their behaviour. In 1964, a code for Union Ministers was adopted.
Adopting a code of conduct voluntarily is not a disgrace to anybody. In 1999, at a conference of Chief Justices of India, a resolution was passed to adopt a code of conduct for judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts, and a 15-point code labelled “Reinstatement of Values in Judicial Life” was recommended. Judges are expected to maintain an air of “aloofness” in their personal and official lives.
India is not the first country to think of prescribing a code for elected members to be ashamed of such a necessity. On the contrary, it is a late comer. Law-making bodies in many countries have evolved mechanisms to check conflict of interests of members and to encourage separation of personal and public financial and other activities.
In the UK, following a resolution adopted in the House of Commons, a code for MPs was prepared in 1995-96. In Canada, there is a Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner with powers to examine violations of Conflict of Interests Code. The US has a code since 1968 and Germany from 1972. A Code of Deontology was adopted in France for members of the National Assembly and Senate in 2011 and in Belgium for its Chamber and Senate in 2013. Norway declared Ethical Guidelines in 2013, and Bulgaria framed Ethical Code of Conduct in 2014, and so also many other countries.
The code in UK sets out the standards of behaviour expected of MPs as they carry out their work. It also contains rules concerning additional income, gifts and other personal interests that must be declared by MPs and published in the Register of MPs’ interests. The Register is maintained by the Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards. The general principles of conduct expected include selflessness, integrity, objectivity, openness, honesty, leadership and role model.
The General Assembly of the UNO adopted a Resolution in 1996 on a Model International Conduct for Public Officials including MPs as a tool to guide efforts at fighting corruption. The Council of Europe in its Resolution on Twenty Guiding Principles for the Fight Against Corruption in 1997 invited national authorities to apply these principles in their legislative practice.
Thus, adoption of a code of conduct has been universally accepted as a normal parliamentary practice. Despite this, the European Barometer Survey of the European Commission of 2016 reported that majority of European citizens continued to distrust their representatives in national parliaments with a level of trust on average at 32 per cent. Rising level of corruption adversely affecting public accountability and political credibility lessen the level of trust.
Neither disclosure of conflict of interest nor demarcation of private and public interests is strong in India. The result is seen today in unlimited corruption and its unmanageable growth. Power not always corrupts directly, but very often acts through proxies and middlemen thus escalating corruption far and wide.
What we need is an enforceable system with inbuilt mechanism for automatic enforcement of the law and rules against corrupt practices. Eternal vigilance cannot be left to the convenience of policing authorities, but should become a way of life. A code of conduct for MPs is absolutely necessary, but not adequate to cleanse our politics and political institutions unless it has provisions to enforce compliance.