It is not clear what exactly Vijay Mallya’s contribution has been to the upper house of Parliament, other than the free hospitality he has often extended to his fellow members of Parliament on his private jets. But Mr Mallya is not the only business leader to have had a poor parliamentary track record. Even the flamboyant Rahul Bajaj or the handsome Anil Ambani failed to make an impact on the proceedings of Parliament. Then there are scores of other less high profile business leaders seated on all sides of both the upper and lower houses of Parliament, but few of them have shaped policy or moulded public life. Only the younger Ambani saw the light of day in time and quit a few months into his term. Mr Mallya, on the other hand, has chosen to seek a second term. Clearly, business persons who seek a seat in Parliament must think it worth their while. Their shareholders must approve of this investment. But if they don’t, they must then ask why precious corporate time and money are being wasted. What is the return on investment? Apart from such corporate leaders, India’s Parliament and legislative assemblies are full of contractors, builders and investors of all sizes and shapes, and many of them have secured ministerial appointments.
In a democracy, one cannot object to anyone who is qualified seeking public office. However, it is important to ensure that people in positions of political power and influence do not misuse their power and influence, much less deploy this in favour of their corporate and private interest. That is why a political leader like Sharad Pawar must come clean on his private business interests. He, for one, has far too many of them. There are many ministers who routinely travel abroad at public expense to pursue their private business interests. At the state level, things are worse. Many state-level ministers, cutting across political parties, have direct business interests in areas supervised by their ministries.
This is not to suggest that people in public life should isolate themselves and have nothing to do with business persons. Far from it. In fact, there should be far more purposeful, policy-oriented interaction between politicians and business leaders so that the government’s policies are better informed by the experience of the market. Interaction and interface are different from interconnections and interdependence. Most modern democracies define fairly clearly what amounts to a “conflict of interest”. The Shashi Tharoor episode brought this issue into full public focus and Mr Tharoor did well to resign his ministerial position, even though it is not clear if he has ceased all links with business interests in cricket. But in Mr Pawar’s case, the conflict of interest argument is even more relevant. Recent trends in Indian politics suggest that the situation is going from bad to worse. Like the infamous “politician-criminal” nexus, there is now the “businessman-politician” nexus that is equally insidious and damaging to public policy. This is neither in the interests of healthy politics nor healthy business. In fact, a vast majority of politicians and business persons would feel happier and reassured if explicit norms on conflict of interest were put in place so that the black sheep could be separated from the rest of the herd.