Matters of interest

A register of interest for Lok Sabha MPs could help shore up the credibility of the legislature

In addition to the assets and liabilities that they declare to the Speaker, members of the Lok Sabha may now have to furnish a declaration of their business and financial interests in a separate register. The move, suggested by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), has been recommended by the ethics committee of the Lower House and is reportedly being considered by the rules committee. At a time when public institutions are perceived to be caught in a crisis of credibility, transparency is regarded as the universal specific. However, it may have only a token effect unless it is properly deployed. A similar register of interest is already in force in the Rajya Sabha, but it does not seem to have dramatically altered perceptions of the Upper House.

It is still unclear how the register of interest will be structured, but ADR had recommended comprehensive declarations. All commercial activities, including consultancy and shareholding, and nonprofit activities through membership in trusts, NGOs and Section 25 companies, were to be declared. In addition, in line with the declaration of assets made by MPs, the interests of spouses and dependants were also to be declared. Even more important, perhaps, is a suggestion that MPs should be barred from serving in panels and committees where they might have a conflict of interest. The judicial tradition of judges recusing themselves for fear of conflict of interest is sought to be imported into the legislature.

Interest is indifferently declared in India. Among private citizens, analysts offer market advice, opinion-makers dispense political spin and doctors prescribe procedures and drugs, all without declaring their interest in the outcomes. Interest has come to be regarded as the prime mover and the denial of interest is met with incredulity. In this atmosphere, even the highest institutions are being accused of acting on covert motives. The image of the legislature has suffered collateral damage from the wave of popular resentment against politicians. It can be salvaged only by complete transparency.

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