Asset declaration by candidates not sufficient
A question is put to John Reed
(played by Warren Beatty) in ‘Reds’, the classic
film based on Reed’s authoritative account of the
Russian Revolution, ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’:
‘Reed, what do you think this war is about?’ Reed, a
well-known journalist who had just returned to New
York after covering the Mexican Revolution for the
Metropolitan Magazine and the war referred to was
World War I. Reed stood up and the audience
attending the lavish dinner party fell silent,
expecting a profound analysis. He offered a one-word
Had John Reed been asked what
politics is about today he might give the same
answer. Profit. Money. Making-money. A lot of money.
That’s what politics is about once manifestos are
forgotten, posters and cut-outs removed, leaflets
recycled and rhetoric becomes a dim memory.
Candidates and parties spend millions of rupees to
boost image and convince the voters that they and
they alone can solve their burning problems. They
are all honest, clean, skillful, energetic and wise.
Or so they claim. If all this was true then we would
be living in a perfect society and in physical and
social landscapes devoid of crime, squalor, wastage,
preventable diseases and wastage. We do not, alas!
If it was only about empty rhetoric
that is soon forgotten and non-delivery of promises,
it would still be sufferable. The truth is that for
all the grand claims and pronouncements, not only
does nothing concrete materialise by way of
enhancing the overall well-being of the population.
Why then should anyone contest? If they were honest
and if they realise they just cannot deliver, they
could admit incompetence and resign or at least
choose not to re-contest. This hardly ever happens.
We are forced to conclude, given the fact that the
salaries and other legal benefits of holding office
are insignificant compared with amounts spent on
campaigns, that Reed’s observation is eminently
applicable to politicians.
Politics is like a special machine
where someone who looks pious, well-meaning, sincere
and capable goes in and a fat, arrogant,
self-satisfied and wealthy individual comes out. The
arrogance and body shape can be forgiven, but not
wealth-accumulation. Not in a democracy that can
claim to be ‘functional’.
It is in this context that a recent statement made
by the Elections Commissioner, Mahinda Desapriya
regarding asset declaration by candidates needs to
be examined carefully. Desapriya has sought powers
to disqualify any candidate failing to declare
assets prior to submitting nominations. He states
that while most candidates had complied with the
requirement, some are yet to come clean.
What is important, however, is not mere asset
declaration but a meticulous examination of
declaration to test for falsification. If the
relevant laws do not require honesty in declaration
and the powers to verify claim, and if there are no
legal mechanisms to assess assets acquired while in
office, then obtaining asset-declaration is nothing
more than eyewash.
It has to be kept in mind that
crooks are resourceful creatures and tend to have a
better understanding of the law than the average
citizen and as such are generally educated about all
the loopholes as well. There are many ways to hide
assets and many ways to explain wealth acquisition,
after all. As things stand, unless the Commission to
Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption
makes a move, elected candidate just move on to the
next election. In the very least, there is no
mechanism to note differences in asset endowment of
candidates up for re-election and therefore no
queries seeking explanation for difference if any.
What is required then is a more robust set of laws
so that politics ceases to be another name for
profiteering through commissions, favours and
bribes. What is required also is a proper and
independent auditing mechanism. Most importantly,
what is required is hawk-eye vigilance on the part
of the citizenry. It must be noted that
unfortunately a culture has developed where the
voter expect the voted to make bucks after being
elected. This is a ‘par for the course’ that helps
make the general voting population deserving of the
kinds of governments and representatives they get
saddled with post-election.
If the public is complacent, then
the crooks who see politics as buck-making vocation
cannot be expected to be on their toes, forget about
enacting laws that would inhibit such operations.
The Elections Commissioner has not laid it out as
thick as the general public would like, but he’s
come out and said something that needed to be said.
It is brave of him and he needs to be supported at
all levels and by all stakeholders. If this is not
done, we will continue to caricature novice
parliamentarians and other elected representatives
as scrawny hopefuls who, with time, are drawn as
smug and obnoxious fatties. The people will laugh
but the politicians will continue to have the last
laugh. It will continue to be raucous and
unpalatable, and will extend the validity of Reed’s
comment regarding the purpose of politics, namely,