15 March 2018 05:16:21 IST

Turning a blind eye to conflict of interest

Many past Presidents have placed their private financial interests with a blind trust, but will Trump follow this convention?

Conflict of interest is a serious issue. In India though, we often make a mockery of it

A few years ago, a jury was picking the winners for an award given away by a publication. One of the nominees was known to be the protégé of a jury member. For the sanctity of the award, he should have stepped out of the meeting when the nominations were discussed.

Instead, this corporate icon stayed put, and criticised other nominees so much that the rest of the jury members fell in line and voted his mentee the winner.

This was just a jury meet for an award, which didn’t have any important consequences, other than recognising talent, or just boosting one’s ego. However, similar decisions in board or cabinet meetings or among team selectors or judiciaries impact lives and fortunes.

But in India, conflict of interest is an elephant in the room that none wants to acknowledge.

Politics, cricket

Pick any political party and there are at least a few examples to cite. The most recent ones include the controversy surrounding External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s role in granting travel documents to Lalit Modi; and the yet to be sorted out mess between Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, and DLF, the biggest real estate company in the country.

Cricket has been in the thick of action too. Even as former BCCI president N Srinivasan altered the law books to own the IPL Chennai Super Kings team, his ‘blue-eyed boy’, and captain cool MS Dhoni also had to face a yorker. A company in which he had invested was managing his colleagues in the Indian cricket team.

But after the controversies died down, all of them, and us, have gone about our businesses as usual.

The American connection

Now it is no secret that Donald Trump, American businessman and Republican nominee for President, has not lost much love on Indians. Or is it just the call centres? Nevertheless, he would love the largesse that the Indian legal system showers on those accused of benefiting from conflict of interest.

Earlier this week, Newsweek said that Trump’s real estate investments overseas, including in India, could conflict with America’s foreign policy. If he wins the election, will Trump the President cosy up with India so that Trump the CEO gets easy access to the domestic market? The billionaire businessman has real estate projects sporting the Trump brand in Pune and Gurgaon. But a few of his projects have been caught in the regulatory web.

In the US, as the Presidential race gains heat, calls have been made on both Trump and his Democrat counterpart, Hillary Clinton, to separate their business interests from their political lives. Though both have promised to do so, few are convinced.

Strict laws

Laws in the US are strict in monitoring possible executive decisions that could benefit those in office. The laws prevent a government employee from participating in any decision that could financially benefit him, his family or any organisation he is associated with.

But there is a loophole that Trump the President wouldn’t mind a bit. Bloomberg’s Timothy L O’Brien says that Presidents are exempt from Federal conflict-of-interest laws. While many of the past Presidents have voluntarily put their financial interests with a blind trust , it will be intriguing to see if Trump, who has hundreds of business interests, will follow this convention. Perhaps, the bigger ‘if’ is about him winning the race.

Back in India, though, the electorate’s anger has not sustained long enough to elicit a healthy and meaningful debate over the issue. Even tougher would be to pass legislation as many of the legislators could end up on the losing side. A study of the previous Lok Sabha found that about one-fourth of the Parliamentarians could be faulted for conflicting interests.

Perhaps, removing this conflict is the biggest reform that we need.