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Political honesty

K.G. Kumar

Politicians' concern about reputations, not elections, is what keeps them honest.

NOW that elections - and the immeasurable power of the individual voter in a parliamentary democracy - are on the centre-stage of most thinking minds, it is equally worthwhile pondering over the role of ethics and honesty in sending a politician to power, especially in the context of the total rout of the ruling front in Kerala, many of whose stalwarts were not exactly paragons of virtue.

Apparently, the reality is not as straightforward as it appears, going by a just-published study by Glenn R. Parker, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Purdue University, US.

Politicians' concern about reputations, not elections, is what keeps them honest, according to this political scientist. "Politicians' actions cannot be effectively policed by voters," says Parker. "But my research shows that out of concern for their reputations, we can expect most politicians to police their own behaviour and refrain from engaging in activities for private gain at the expense of the voters."

Parker's research results, published as a book titled `Self-Policing in Politics: The Political Economy of Reputational Controls on Politicians', draw on public opinion based in Congressional constituencies and collected by the University of Michigan's national election study surveys between 1978 and 1994.

"Aside from the electoral benefit, members of Congress with reputations for trustworthiness are able to secure a prestigious post-political job," Parker says. "This post-elective employment incentive ensures their honesty throughout their terms of office. Unfortunately, this incentive for honesty is less relevant to Senators and Presidents, who usually are guaranteed posh jobs after they leave office."

That may not quite be the situation in India, where "once a politician, forever a politician" seems to be the norm. However, from Parker's point of view, reputations provide politicians with future earnings in the same sense as they do for businesses. For businesses, it is a stream of future customers; for politicians, it is re-election and high-profile jobs in the private sector or in politics upon exiting office.

Neither businesses nor politicians will cheat their customers if the gains from being reputable are greater than those obtained through cheating, says Parker. Information about reputations is disseminated through the media, gossip and people's personal experiences with politicians.

Often, though, constituents find it difficult to control unethical or quasi-ethical behaviour in Congress because of the high costs involved in monitoring legislators' activities, many of which are hidden from view, like foreign junkets, lax voting attendance, bouncing cheques and collecting unreasonably high fees from interest groups for speaking engagements. There are laws preventing some of this behaviour, but politicians will find loopholes, Parker says. And research also shows that voters are lenient with scandalous politicians. More than two-thirds of congressional candidates who are accused of corruption and run in general elections are re-elected, he says.

Parker says the post-elective employment benefit for honesty in politics may be more valuable in controlling unethical and dishonest behaviour than the electoral incentive. "This shows we cannot rely on elections to reward trustworthy politicians or prevent unethical behaviour," he says.

To be sure, the situation in India is markedly different. For one, post-elective options are few and far between. For another, so endemic to the body politic is corruption that most voters are wont to give a long leash to politicians.

But perhaps as the Indian situation changes with growth in the economy generating more and varied opportunities for earnings, there may well come a time when the average neta will learn to remain honest, not for fear of elections, but despite them.

The writer can be contacted at kg@tug.org.in

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