Conflict Of Interest For Whom?

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YogendraThis is the question psephologist and political scientist Yogendra Yadav has been asking for the last fortnight, ever since the media first reported that he may be punished by the Ministry for Human Resource Development for joining the Aam Aadmi Party. Now, the ministry has sent him an official notice saying they are removing Yadav from the prestigious University Grants Commission with immediate effect, for joining a political party. The Ministry claims Yadav’s political affiliation sends a dangerous precedent and opens up the apex decision making body for universities in the country to become politicised.

In the week that this controversy erupted, Yadav told TEHELKA of how he had informed the Ministry of his decision as soon as he joined the Aam Aadmi Party, offering at that time to resign from the UGC. The Ministry, headed at that time by Kapil Sibal, got back to him to say there was nothing in the rulebook that says you cannot be affiliated to a party and that does not amount to a conflict of interest since many other government bodies have had people who are part of political movements and agitations on their board, like the National Advisory Council for instance. The arguments put forward by the Ministry last year were compelling enough to keep Yadav in the UGC.

Now, the volte face by the same Ministry, alleges Yadav, may have something to do with its new head – Minister Pallam Raju. And the opposition could have something to do with a proposal to open an inter-university centre for teacher training in Minister Raju’s constituency of Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh.

“You should check if there are not other conflicts of interest within the UGC that are real,” Yadav told TEHELKA. For instance, he pointed to the fact that the current chairman of the UGC Ved Prakash, presided over the ratification given to a university where his wife works. When TEHELKA checked back with Prakash, an even more interesting allegation was made. Prakash clarified that the expert committee in question, of which he was a part, was looking at the reports submitted by various universities, including one where his wife worked and that the resolution to ratify all of them was adopted unanimously after due consideration by the entire committee. “There have been instances in the past, where expert reports to declare a university fit are first approved by the chairperson of the UGC and then placed before the commission for their ratification. I never did any such thing,” Prakash added. Implicit in this is the allegation that Prakash, in clearing himself of the allegation of being party to a conflict of interest, deflected the attention to many more instances where real conflicts of interest have occurred. Where the chairman of the UGC has unilaterally declared a university fit and then sent it forward to the rest of the commission as a mere formality.

Which brings us back to the original question that Yadav’s summary dismissal from the UGC raises. If his joining the Aam Aadmi Party that is on a collision course with the UPA government was really a problem, why was the Ministry dormant about this development all the while? And if the ministry now alleges, there is in fact an implied conflict of interest, what about all these other conflicts that the current chairman now alludes to? The dismissal of Yadav only raises more disturbing questions for the Ministry of Human Resource Development to answer in the days ahead.


 

An Open Letter to the HRD Minister From Yogendra Yadav

28 September 2013

Dr. M. M. Pallam Raju
Minister of Human Resource Development
Government of India
New Delhi

Dear Dr. Raju,

I must thank you for your Ministry’s order retiring me from my responsibility as UGC Member “with immediate effect” (F. No. 7-1/2013-UIA, dated 18 September 2013). My first thought on receiving this order was to recall Kabir: “भला हुआ मोरी गगरी फूटी, मैं पनियां भरन से छूटी” (I’m glad my pitcher broke, relieving me of the drudgery of collecting water). I believe I am the first Member in the history of the UGC to have been retired by the government. This badge of honour assures me that I must have done something right.

They say arbitrary power is always nervous. So is your order, as it labours for 11 pages to discover grounds that simply do not exist, cleverly buries in legalese the substantive issues that I had raised in my response to your Show Cause Notice, and focusses on technicalities. I would not waste your or my time in reiterating how this order is illegal. I believe you have been told that the order would be hard to defend in a court of law and that I could obtain a stay. That is perhaps why you have rushed to file a caveat in the Delhi High Court (dated 24 September 2013, filed by Shri Sandeep Jain, Under Secretary in your Ministry) in anticipation of my petition challenging this order. I wish your Ministry had exercised the same legal acumen to deal with the cases of corruption and fraud within the UGC where several Members like me had to push the UGC and the Ministry to take action against the guilty. Your anxiety also explains the alacrity with which your government has appointed my successor. I wish your Ministry had shown an iota of this efficiency in matters that affect thousands of students, such as framing rules to regulate the fees of private universities and instituting scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students.

The order is also full of ironies; I am sure the lawyer who drafted it for you did not intend these. I could not help smiling when I read that “[a]ny iota of political influence in the UGC’s decision making may vitiate the sacrosanct academic exercise of UGC’s decision making”. I remembered the proposal for Inter University Centres (IUC) at Kakinada being set up to please you and the earlier episode involving the then Finance Minister Mr Pranab Mukherjee – in both these cases, I was the one who stood against political interference in the UGC’s decision making. The idea that appointment to the UGC must be “rigidly protected from political or personal lobbying” brought another smile, for I had read several news reports about the recent appointment of the Chairman, UGC.

The supreme irony, however, lay in the repeated reference to ‘conflict of interest’ in this order. Your government had most brazenly institutionalised conflict of interest by appointing owners/managers of deemed/private universities and other institutions as members of the UGC. In fact I was the one who raised this point in the very first meeting of the Commission that I attended, leading to the setting up of a Committee under my chairmanship. The report of that Committee resulted in the UGC becoming one of the few public institutions in India to have framed a policy on Conflict of Interests (which incidentally does not bar one from the membership of political parties). Perhaps I should not mind your government now teaching me lessons on ‘conflict of interest’.Perhaps we can expect your Ministry to now act on other cases of conflict of interest that lie all over the higher education sector.

Above all, I found your order amusing due to its obsession with the grammar of power. It repeatedly refers to this “post” and its “prestige” and “the power/influence, that any member of the UGC can wield” and assumes that anyone in their right mind would fight to retain and reclaim this position of power. Those who sit in Shastri Bhavan can easily forget that the world of ideas is not governed by the grammar of power, that these ‘powerful’ positions do not hold any value for many academics.

As I wrote in my last letter, I did not seek this ‘post’, your government handed over this responsibility to me. As soon as the formation of Aam Aadmi Party was announced on 2 October 2012, I checked with your predecessor if my continuation in the UGC violated any rules, norms or precedent; he requested me to continue. Normally, I would have welcomed the prospect of being relieved of this responsibility but not if it were done to silence an inconvenient voice. I felt that I had a responsibility, to stay put in the Commission, if only to alert the academic community about some of the measures that your government was rushing through the UGC. Having done this, I would like to turn to other things.

I know your government has made all preparations for fighting a legal battle. Many of my friends and well-wishers have urged me to approach the court, if only to ensure that this case does not become a bad precedent that robs autonomous institutions of their remaining autonomy. My friend, and a leading lawyer of the country, Shri Prashant Bhushan tells me that this Order is against the letter and spirit of law, is inconsistent with past practices and is not likely to stand judicial scrutiny. He offered to take up this matter in public interest, but I had to decline his kind offer.

I suspect that your government would like this moral and political debate that is being carried out in the public domain to be reduced to a courtroom battle over someone’s reinstatement, a dispute over rules and their interpretation, a debate defined by the grammar of power. I would like this to remain above all, a debate about institutional norms and public good. I would like this to be a political debate in the highest sense of the term.

So, I’m afraid I am going to disappoint you. I am happy to be relieved and am truly relieved. Therefore, I do not plan to seek any more relief from any court of law. I would no doubt miss my wonderful colleagues in the Commission, but I have no desire to reclaim this responsibility. Ever since your Ministry issued me the Show Cause Notice, hundreds of students, teachers, researchers and public intellectuals, including some of the finest minds of this country, have protested against this move. A friend sent me “Sacking Mubaarak” greetings! More than one member of the Commission spoke to me to express a wish to resign in protest.

This kind of moral and political support matters much more to me than any legal order. It tells me that when one voice of dissent is suppressed, many more and more powerful voices come up from nowhere. It assures me that the larger questions that I raised within the UGC will continue to be raised in my absence.

Yours sincerely,
Yogendra Yadav

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Revati Laul has been a television journalist and documentary film maker for most of her 16 year career. Ten of those were spent in NDTV where her reports included everything from the aftermath of the Gujarat riots to following truck drivers into ULFA infested Assam. Then about a year and a half ago, she decided to tell her stories in indelible ink instead. Most people said she made an upside down decision but she firmly believes she’s found food for the soul. She was hired by Tehelka to write on politics. For her this does not mean tracking the big fish but looking closely at how the tiny fish are getting swallowed and by whom. On most days though, she can be found conversing on her other two favourite subjects – fornication and food. Fiction is another friend of hers. A short story she wrote called `Drool’ was published in an anthology of young fiction by Zubaan. She is also founder member of the NGO ‘Tara’ that looks after underpriviledged children.

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