Should We Laugh or Cry?
Reality check for chattering classes
It is common to hear in drawing room conversations these days how democracy is being destroyed by rustic roughnecks. True, Mr Laloo Yadav and compatriots have established a precedent that no minister need relinquish office even after arrest, unless convicted by a court of law. In contrast our middle class heroes vainly battle to restore decency in public life. Middle class heroes have impeccable manners. But what is their record? Their actions have in fact been more damaging to the system. The media of course remains too charmed by good manners to question them. A few examples from their record might be instructive.
It was established convention that only a member of Lok Sabha could become prime minister. Until Indira Gandhi became PM even though she was in Rajya Sabha. Madhu Limaye prepared a Bill to ensure that only a Lok Sabha MP could become PM. Meanwhile Indira Gandhi legitimized her post by winning a Lok Sabha seat. She persuaded Limaye to withdraw the Bill so that she might introduce a more comprehensive Bill. Limaye obliged. The proposed Bill never saw light of day.
Things got worse. After Rajiv Gandhi's assassination political compulsions persuaded Congress to make Narasimha Rao the PM. Rao was made PM even though he was not a member of either House. Later he legitimized his post by winning the Nandyal by-election. The poll campaign in that election was characterized by glaring electoral malpractice conveniently ignored, by Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan. Taking advantage of the precedent set by Rao, Mr Deve Gowda, a member of the Karnataka Assembly, also became PM without being an MP. There arose the piquant situation, then, in which Mr Gowda as leader of the House could not vote in it. But as PM he did fly to Karnataka to vote in the Assembly because he had not resigned from it.
The Rajya Sabha was established to ensure representation of the States in Parliament. Therefore only permanent residents of a state were eligible to represent it in the Rajya Sabha. But middle class heroes like Mr L.K. Advani and Dr Manmohan Singh, to name just a few, blithely presented false affidavits claiming to be permanent residents of a State by getting registered there as voters and giving spurious addresses as their permanent residence. This malpractice became then so widespread that Parliament decided eventually to do away with the precondition of permanent residence for the right to represent a State in Rajya Sabha. Now any citizen from anywhere in the country can contest Rajya Sabha membership from any State he chooses. Theoretically, therefore, 200 residents of Delhi can become Rajya Sabha MPs representing all the States of our Republic. All this has been accomplished by middle class heroes with the tacit consent of mainstream media and of the decent gentry chattering away in Page Three parties.
Forget the generalized past. Come to the immediate present. Take a good look at the record of the most distinguished icon among middle class heroes. Consider Dr Manmohan Singh's progress in politics. After the President demurred from inviting Mrs Sonia Gandhi to become PM without first receiving certain clarifications from her, Mrs Gandhi chose Dr Singh to become prime minister. The basis of the President's hesitation in swearing in Mrs Gandhi is another tale for another day. Suffice it to say that I wrote on the subject elsewhere at the time and invited Rashtrapati Bhawan to contradict me if my facts were wrong. A few days prior to this Rashtrapati Bhawan had contradicted Dr Subramaniam Swamy's assertion that the issue of Mrs Gandhi's citizenship blocked her chances. With regard to my assertion Rashtrapati Bhawan maintained a deafening silence.
What is relevant however is Dr Singh's alacrity in accepting the offer without observing constitutional propriety. Mrs Gandhi announced his appointment as PM even before the Congress Parliamentary party endorsed that decision. Apart from setting a damaging precedent, was it consistent with self-respect for him to accept the post without first ascertaining the wishes of the MPs? Incidentally, a vast number of MPs openly voiced opposition to his candidature.
Well, after Dr Singh became PM what did he do? He gave consent to the creation of the National Advisory Council to monitor and guide the government on matters of policy. Mrs Sonia Gandhi with cabinet rank became chairperson of the NAC. So through the backdoor she became a super PM to circumvent the hurdles blocking her from becoming PM. At first it was announced that all government files could be accessed by her. But strong protests by politicians and lawyers prevented that. It may be recalled that just before the NDA government fell a CBI team led by its director had abruptly cut short a foreign trip and returned with important Bofors papers. Nothing was heard subsequently about these papers. With the new government in place, the CBI explained that the team returned because the director had to attend to some personal domestic problem! The manner in which the NAC functioned subsequently as a super cabinet led even the Financial Times of London to deplore in an editorial such duality of command.
Dr Singh is said to have been inhibited by decency from preventing the excesses of Governor's rule in Goa and Jharkhand. But the events leading to the dissolution of the Bihar Assembly stretched such 'decency' to beyond credibility. Details about what transpired are too fresh in memory to merit repetition. What is germane is the PM's active involvement in the conspiracy to dismiss fraudulently the Assembly in order to prevent Mr Nitish Kumar from becoming chief minister. Dr Singh presided over the midnight emergency cabinet meeting that forwarded the papers relating to dissolution of the Assembly to President Kalam who was then visiting Russia. To bolster its case the cabinet thought fit to attach a post-dated newspaper clipping to Governor Buta Singh's recommendation to dissolve the assembly. So one might see that when circumstances compel 'decent' leaders to soil their own hands they too can oblige. The Supreme Court of course judged the dissolution to be unconstitutional. After the verdict one would have expected the PM to resign. But 'decency' argued restraint till the full judgment was delivered. The Chief Justice who presided over the Constitutional Bench has never tired of advising lower courts to expedite cases involving VIP corruption. Constitutional crimes apparently are different. The Supreme Court took its time delivering this crucial judgment. By the time this appears in print it should be out. The weeks ahead will tell us then for whom the bell tolls.
The latest accomplishment of our 'decent' PM is of course his handling of the current Quattrocchi affair. In a brazen display of double-faced statements the CBI first said it had nothing to do with the decision to defreeze the London bank accounts of Bofors-accused Ottavio Quattrocchi. Then another spokesman of the CBI said that it was solely responsible for the decision. The CBI comes under the Department of Personnel, which is under the Prime Minister himself. The Prime Minister blandly read out a statement that the government never interfered with the 'autonomous' functioning of the CBI. Autonomous functioning? Don't insult our intelligence, Prime Minister! The CBI cannot even investigate an official without clearance from the government. So while the Additional Solicitor General went to London to defreeze Quattrocchi's accounts, the Supreme Court sternly ordered the accounts to remain frozen. London must be laughing its head off over these contradictory commands coming simultaneously from Indian authorities.
And we? Should we laugh or cry?