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The Call for a National Code of Conduct

Valerian Rodrigues ( was former national fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.

What are the resources and concerns that can contribute to a substantive ethical code for the political class from the experience of the working of parliamentary democracy in India? Such a code need not put a damp squib on the ideological fervour of political parties but set them an anchor. A vibrant democratic culture is a better ground for the cultivation of social values than much preaching, be it in the classroom or in other public fora.

On the occasion of the release of his book, Moving On ... Moving Forward: A Year in Office on 2 September 2018, India’s Vice President Venkaiah Naidu argued,

In my view political parties must evolve a consensus on the code of conduct for their members both inside the legislature and out of it, otherwise, people might soon lose faith in our political processes and institutions.

He also asked “Parties to come together, transcending political considerations, on issues of national importance,” and felt that while India’s economic progress was commendable, and Indian stock of reputation was growing worldwide, the functioning of Parliament was clearly a matter of concern. From the language employed by Naidu, and the composition of the audience at the release of the book, it was clear that his call for a public ethical code was not limited to the functioning of the Parliament but expressed a wider concern, a deficit in India’s political class to be made good. But, while the vice president dwelt on several specific institutional reforms, he said little about the “issues of national importance” around which an ethical direction for the political class has to be forged.

The reticence with regard to the latter, at an occasion attended by a cross section of leadership across political parties, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is amply compensated by his recent speeches at several public fora where he has highlighted the need to rise above caste and community in our thinking, and stressed the need to foreground national interest as a whole in their place. How valid is the conjunction between formal institutional dexterity and an ethical grounding of national life as a whole? Should our ethical grounding be sanitised from sites of belonging, and can it ever be done as far as public life is concerned? Are we not deluding ourselves when we claim to do so?

Dexterity of Public Institutions

A search for an ethical code to govern India’s public life is not new. The great corpus of Indian writing reflecting on the freedom movement—Phule’s Gulamgiri, Ramabai’s The High Caste Hindu Woman, Tilak’s Gita Rahasya, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, Tagore’s The Religion of Man and Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste are just a few footprints of this journey. Giving a constitutional turn to this quest, Ambedkar invoked it in his conception of “constitutional morality,” that is, public life, including institutional dexterity, to be governed by the principles enshrined in the Constitution. Attempts to set up a parliamentary committee on ethics to govern the behaviour of members of the house and hold them accountable picked up momentum in the 1990s. The Ethics Committee of Rajya Sabha consisting of nine members (later expanded to 10) was constituted in March 1997 “to oversee the moral and ethical conduct of the members and to examine the cases referred to it with reference to the ethical and other misconduct by members” (Rajya Sabha Secretariat 2005: 3). Over the years this committee has evolved a general framework of a code of conduct for members of the Rajya Sabha and a procedure for enforcing the code.

Its reports have suggested that members need to advance general well-being of the citizen–community and desist from acting in a way that affects their credibility. Noteworthy, however, are two precepts: The first ordains that in case of conflict between one’s private interest on the one hand and public interests on the other, a member should prioritise the latter and they should not employ their official interventions in the house, such as resolutions, voting, or questions, for private gain. The reports of the committee have drawn attention to the need for electoral reform and disapproved the increasing trend of disorderly proceedings in the house. It has identified five pecuniary interests to be furnished by members under Rule 293 of the Rules of Procedure: remunerative directorship; regular remunerated activity; shareholding of controlling nature; paid consultancy; and professional engagement.

The progress in this regard in the Lok Sabha has, however, been tardy. It set up a new permanent standing committee on this concern only in August 2015 under the chairpersonship of L K Advani. Till then it had an ad hoc committee which was formed in 2000. Unlike the Rajya Sabha, the Lok Sabha Committee does not maintain a register of members’ interests and does not prevent a member from participating in a debate on an issue in which they have pecuniary interests. The Rajya Sabha panel acts on complaints and can take up an issue suo motu while the Lok Sabha Committee can only act on complaints. In this context it may be important to point out that ethics committees of the house enjoy wide powers in several countries. In the United Kingdom, it is known as the “Committee of Standards” and there is an independent Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards. It should be noted that pecuniary inducements of members of the legislatures were an important concern in the parliamentary debate on the Anti-Defection Bill,1 in the deliberations of the Justice Venkatachalaya-led National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution2 and in the Anna Hazare-led anti-graft movement (2010–11) in India. It is important to point out that the late Somnath Chatterjee, as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, made ethical concerns an important theme in most of his speeches, particularly in his interventions in the house.3

While setting standards to the behaviour of members, and ensuring that they do not trade public office for private gain, are important considerations in a representational democracy, surely, Vice President Naidu’s concerns are not limited to them. With the kind of experience behind him he knows well that institutional norms have a limited reach in India’s political setting and would remain fragile without the requisite social consensus behind them. Violations of institutional norms can be cushioned through numerous mediating institutions between public trust on one hand and the choices that a representative confronts on the other. In fact, some of these choices may themselves appear to be the public trust. There is little documented evidence, as yet, to suggest that the dexterity dossier of the Rajya Sabha, immediately under the charge of Naidu, with a better and longer institutionalised ethical code, is qualitatively better than that of the Lok Sabha, and if it is so, it is on account of this code. While personal integrity on which such a code rests is important for public office, there is no one-to-one equivalence between them in a complex setting like that of India where foundational values are in conflict. Having realised it well, Naidu has set himself the statesmanly task of nurturing a conducive ethical setting for the cultivation of an appropriate code in the house by delving into the wider matrix of public culture.

His recent public speeches and interventions suggest a fairly coherent set of advocacies that are an outcome of such diagnosis: He has called for probity, accountability and transparency in public life; equality without discrimination; institutional responsibility; respect for cultural inheritance; and ecological sensitivity. He has condemned lynching and mob violence to secure partisan ends and called for respect for rule of law, much more ardently than many of his erstwhile party colleagues in public office. He seems to be pinning his hopes in the country’s educational system to nurture these values in the young. He has sought time-bound institutional action at all levels of public life, and specialised instrumentalities to act in instances such as election petitions and malpractices. He favours a national policy on the upper houses of legislatures and has spoken proactively on pending policy measures such as reservation for women in the legislatures and a public tilt towards agriculture.

Will these social values and institutional innovations necessarily lend themselves to enhance public virtue “both inside and outside the house”? Most of these values and institutional reforms are too wobbly and would prove slippery when interests are in conflict, or simply be deployed as camouflage to subserve partisan ends. They are deeply contentious, and can lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Besides, commitment to a value in personal life does not necessarily translate itself into public virtue. The route for an ethical code for public institutions that Naidu has embraced seems to be doublespeak in a political context where some of his own former party colleagues have brazenly pursued modes of action that stand to little ethical scrutiny. If it is so, then should we see his intervention as a feature of modern states, where one set of its institutions speak one language and the others, tongue-in-cheek, something diametrically opposite?

Specific Social Concerns

While the Vice President of India has repackaged an institutional code for parliamentarians and legislators and called for a social ethic to resonate with it, public reason in India, manifest in credible media and literary expressions, critical but engaged social science research, a few significant court judgments, and a section of the political opposition, is inclined to read these concerns significantly differently. Such inclination can be read in queries such as the following: Given the diversity and discrimination in India is it not our national interest to speak for disadvantaged classes, castes and communities, and in the process become “parochial” rather than attempt to rise above such affinities? Is it possible in a polity such as India to rise above caste, community and other forms of identities, and what would it mean in practice? Is it not better for India to cull out an ethic for the functioning of its public institutions from the experiences of the working of India’s parliamentary democracy, and reflections over them, rather than expect it from the consensus among political parties or mimetic replay of the experiments carried out elsewhere in parliamentary democracies? If the experience of parliamentary democracy in India is made the baseline, what kind of a public ethic can we cull out from it?

One of the major reasons for the success of parliamentary democracy in India is its reach to social groups over the years who found little representation in legislative bodies earlier. Such a reach is manifest in the growing extent of representation from socially excluded groups as well as their political participation. For instance, if the proportion of representation from Other Backward Classes was about 12% in the first Lok Sabha in 1952 it rose to 25% in 2004. According to Javeed Alam (2004: 29), in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections,

60.5 percent of the non-literate, and only 55 percent of the educated chose to vote. In 1971, the educated voted 6 percent above the average of 55 percent, and the non-literate voted 3.5 percent below the average.

This shift in representation has not been effective with regard to women and Muslims in India, although their turn-out in voting has enormously grown from the 1970s, due to a combination of factors, including institutional shortcomings and social prejudice. Quite often the institutions that India chose for representation have been complicit in denying the same to them in equal measure. The fear of loss of their own constituencies as well as shift of political power back to the upper castes has made the political class less than enthusiastic on the issue of reservation for women in political representation. Whereas, in the predominantly Muslim-dominated constituencies, the proneness of political parties to put up candidates from the same community has ensured that their votes are divided helping a non-Muslim candidate to have substantive advantages at the hustings.

While such shortcomings have to be attended to by overhauling the representational design, any call to bypass the ethnic regrouping will invariably undermine the gains that parliamentary democracy has made in India. At the same time, it is important to ensure that representation is not reduced to identities in India. If it is done, then common good will be an aggregation of a few representationally dominant ethnic groups, and others will have no reason to repose their trust in their representatives. Vice President Naidu has rightly inferred that in all such contexts, and such a pass is very much before us, the entire system of parliamentary democracy in India will be subject to a trust-deficit. Besides, one of the surest ways to ensure that a parliamentary representative does not rise beyond his ethnic confine, and speak for wider and larger political domain, is to bind him or her to his or ethnic constituency. All national political parties, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party, have demonstrated their acumen in this regard.

If the success of India’s parliamentary democracy lies in its outreach to the great ethnic complexity of India, Parliament and state legislatures as forms of expression of such democratic functioning too have undergone several changes, a few to be nurtured and others to be shunned. Some of the changes, such as the establishment of new fiefdoms among the vulnerable sections or the brazen use of money and muscle power, are not lessons to be taken home. But parliamentary leadership in India has done precious little to take stock of the changes in the composition and modes of representation in the houses, and enable each representative to be true to their mandate. There is a deep disconnect between the platitudes served to the representatives as codes of behaviour on one hand and the strivings and self-perception of representatives themselves at present on the other.

A critical grasp of the political economy of a region, economic challenges and religious expressions in place, with focus on the constituency of a representative, if need be, would prove greatly enabling to a representative rather than they being always asked to take up combative partisan stances on behalf of their party all the while. The interactive outcomes that such interventions can engender among representatives will have much bearing on political accountability and probity instead of merely moralising over it. Some such initiatives will have an impact on the party system in place at present. While the leadership of political parties may harbour its own inhibitions and assessment of such interventions, it can come in the way of the enablement of its party members at its own cost. Such initiatives may also precipitate an inner debate within political parties and nurture new modes of leadership. Such interventions need not assuage ideological distinctions within parties since in a polity such as that of India, there would always be several reasonable stances that are possible on a range of public concerns, policies and political action.

Voice and Trust

There are some distinctive features of the diversity in India woven around comprehensive and thick ways of life which philosophers have termed “deep diversities.” Such diversities have a contentious and sometimes ambiguous relationship with the principles, issues and concerns that hold a polity together, and call for a reflective engagement with them. Such diversity is not merely limited to religious ways of life such as those of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs and ethnic communities such as those of the Adivasis, but does encompass in India arenas of ethnic belonging such as Kashmiriyat or Nagalin. While secular life in India—modern education, health facilities, employment, housing, transport, democracy and even some forms of sociality—have invariably attracted them, they have not traded off their belonging to secularism as a way of life, and sometimes even qualified their approach to the secular domain through the normative repertoire of religious and cultural belonging.

Setting aside their respective belonging would be impossible to members of these groups, or at least to most of them. In fact, most of these groups see their national belonging as integral to and expansion of their religious and cultural belonging, while not necessarily precluding the corresponding influences of the wider national life in which members of these groups have an equal say. Whatever their perception be, there is enough evidence to suggest, that national life has invariably cast its shadow on the religious and cultural radar of these communities. For instance, a large number of Muslims maintain their accounts in banks today and do not regard interest received on these amounts as “haram.” The Catholic Church might be opposed to artificial contraception, but the relative demographic decline of its members in the last three decades cannot be explained without factoring it in. One of the essential conditions for deep diversities to coexist within the fold of a nation is the prevalence of democracy under which such diversities can coexist through mutual engagement and learning.

India’s social map today is not merely writ large with economic inequality, but social inequality as well. This social inequality affects the life chances of a vast section of the people, the lower castes and women. This social inequality has been effectively drawn to commandeer and discipline the labouring poor in India, irrespective of whosoever controls the economy. But it particularly affects those communities traditionally regarded as untouchables or belonging to low professions.

While India’s national life has increasingly come to be seeped with the cultural emblems of Hindu majoritarianism, and this process is not merely a development of post 2014, the religious and cultural belonging of minorities is increasingly seen as the private affair of the minorities, and Dalit concerns at the most are seen as the collective endeavour of Dalits rather than the national commitment as a whole. Tokenism apart, even from the heydays of Nehruvian secularism, India has learnt little as to how to live with its diversity as its way of life. The little that we have are minority rights, and some special constitutional provisions.

India’s diversity demands that instead of prescribing an idea of the nation to it, such an idea be actively invoked by engaging with it and a public culture be pursued that takes an active interest to reach out to the marginalised. Ambedkar denoted such an idea of the nation through the metaphor, “daily plebiscite.” In this context, commitment to the idea of the nation can only be a partisanship towards diversity and social marginality, rather than shed them in the name of development and issues of “national importance.” It would be interesting to see how our legislators will fare if they are asked to respond to a diversity test and index of concern to the marginalised.

The political space in India is agog with social movements of various kinds that beg for attention. While some of them such as Maoism look for a revolutionary alternative of the classic kind and aim at recasting power and social relations on qualitatively different foundations, the scope of their influence has considerably shrunk in recent years. While state repression has been a factor in this decline, their inability to make themselves viable through the democratic path has been the principal reason for their loss of appeal. At the same time there are new movements springing up all the while around, a volley of demands which are extremely difficult to classify—for fair consideration, gender justice, remunerative returns on products, employment and wages, basic needs, rights and liberties, autonomy and identity, ecological concerns and fair resettlement against displacement, hazardous development ventures, oppression and violence, and so on. While some of them are local, others have a wider appeal. These movements have overhauled representation in Parliament and state legislatures and ensured that they continue to reflect the broader aspirations of large sections of people in India. The tryst between parliamentary path and mass movements has been a definitive contribution of India to the democratic project that has few parallels elsewhere.

One of the great challenges that members of Parliament as well as of state legislatures confront is to reach out to these movements and ensure that the promise of democracy is not denied to them. At the same time, they are called upon to ensure that these movements do not hold other members of the political community to ransom, yet do not shy back from recrafting the common good. In all such challenges, a representative needs to command a social trust which can only be the outcome of values under public scrutiny. The national movement in India is an exemplary archive for any representative to examine their trust register.


The threefold baseline for grounding our public life, suggested above, cannot provide a substantive ethical code to the political class but suggests resources and concerns available for the same from the experience of the working of parliamentary democracy in India. Such a code need not put a damp squib on the ideological fervour of political parties but set them an anchor. It is not a formal declaration that should be held up as binding norm before the legislator but the demands of their representation in context. A vibrant democratic culture is a better ground for the cultivation of social values than much preaching, be it in the classroom or in other public fora.


1 See Debate in the Parliament on Constitution (Fifty-second Amendment) Act, 1985. Also see, Jagjit Singh v State of Haryana, in which the Supreme Court upheld the validity of this act.

2 Report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, Vol 1, Delhi: Universal Law Publishing, 2003, pp 105–20.

3 In his Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture, on 14 November 2007, Chatterjee argued that parliamentary democracy can be strengthened only “if those who indulge in or abet in activities or behavior incompatible with established norms are made to account for such conduct, individually or as groups, separating them from the institutions they happen to be associated with.” It is important to point out that 10 members of Parliament were expelled in 2005 in the “cash for query scam” and four members were suspended in 2006 for their role in irregularities related to Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) funds. Further another member of the house was suspended for misuse of facilities provided to a member of the house. In this regard, see Somnath Chatterjee’s Sarath Chandra Memorial Lecture on 1 September 2007.


Alam, Javeed (2004): Who Wants Democracy? Hyderabad: Orient Longman.

Chatterjee, Somnath (2007): “India at Sixty: Achievements and Challenges,” Sarath Chandra Memorial Lecture, Kolkata.

— (2007): Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Government of India (2003): Report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC), Vol 1, Delhi: Universal Law Publishing Co.

Rajya Sabha Secretariat (2005): Rajya Sabha: Practice and Procedure Series, No 16, Committee on Ethics, New Delhi.

Updated On : 8th Oct, 2018


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