On an August afternoon in 2009, the Rajya Sabha witnessed a protest from CPI(M) MP Brinda Karat when fellow member Parimal Nathwani rose to speak on a dispute over the extraction of natural gas from the Krishna-Godavari Basin. Nathwani, an independent MP from Jharkhand, was also president of
Reliance Industries, was one of the parties in the dispute. Karat demanded that he formally declare his links in the House.
Eventually, Nathwani did declare his association with RIL but the case triggered a larger debate within the Rajya Sabha Committee on Ethics over strengthening firewalls to curb conflicts of interest involving MPs.
Yet, a year later, five members with links to private higher educational institutions continue to sit on a parliamentary standing committee that criticised a Bill aimed at cleaning up wrongdoing in higher education, as HT reported yesterday. The MPs belong to parties across the political spectrum.
They did not declare any conflict of interest in the panel meetings – though rules of the Rajya Sabha Committee on Ethics require members on any parliamentary committee to disclose any "pecuniary (direct or indirect) interest" in the subject of the committee's debate.
This case demonstrates why MPs repeatedly find themselves accused of conflict of interest despite rules to guard against violations, argues public policy expert Pratap Bhanu Mehta.
"Conflicts of interest cut across party lines. So, no one is really going to challenge this," says Mehta, citing earlier instances where MPs were accused of conflict of interest.
Liquor baron and owner of Kingfisher Airlines Vijay Mallya faced allegations – which he denied – of trying to influence policies in his airline's favour when he was nominated a member of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Civil Aviation.
India isn't the only country facing this problem. In the UK, Labour MP David Blunkett was forced out of Tony Blair's Cabinet in late 2005 following allegations that he violated norms to guard against conflict of interest when a firm he had a stake in bid for a project under his ministry.
MPs on the Rajya Sabha panel on ethics argue that it is time to make Indian rules on the issue as stringent.
CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury recalls how after the protests against Nathwani, he had spoken at the meeting of the ethics committee suggesting a strengthening of rules against conflict of interest.
"It should not be enough to merely declare your interest and then continue to lobby for what you want," he says.
Sudersan Natchiappan, Congress MP from Tamil Nadu and a member of the parliamentary standing committee on HRD, agreed that the rules guarding against conflict of interest need to be strengthened.
But, he cautioned against portraying all MPs with interests outside politics as "crooks" interested only in minting money.
"We need to separate the two categories – those MPs who pursue multiple interests to help society, and those who are looking to further business interests by becoming an MP," he says.
But BJP Rajya Sabha MP Ravi Shankar Prasad, who had opposed HRD Minister Kapil Sibal during the debate on the Education Tribunals Bill, said: "All conflicts of interest areas need to be looked at."
Mehta, too, says the current rules against conflict of interest are outdated and need to be revised to take into account the "complex ways" in which "MPs today have their hands in different kinds of business enterprises".
"I myself have concerns about the Education Tribunals Bill that the standing committee made observations on. But when you have a scenario like this of conflict of interest, the credibility of the panel's work starts getting questioned," Mehta says.