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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 42, October 5, 2013

Sea Change in National Polity

Wednesday 9 October 2013, by SC


Former Bihar CM, erstwhile Union Railway Minister and RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav has been sentenced to five years imprisonment and fined Rs 25 lakhs in the 17-year-old fodder scam case. Former Bihar CM Jagannath Mishra has also been sentenced and fined in the same case, though his sentence is for four years. Their convictions in the case had come last Monday (on September 30). With yesterday’s judgment in the Special CBI court in Ranchi, Laloo has automatically ceased to be a Lok Sabha member from Saran. Additionally he has been banned from contesting elections for six years.

Thus Laloo becomes the second parliamentarian to be debarred from contensting elections for six years apart from ceasing to be an MP, the first being former Union Minister and Congress’ Rajya Sabha member Rasheed Masood who was, only three days ago, sentenced by a city court in the Capital to four years in prison and fined Rs 60,000 in a corruption case relating to medical college seats (MBBS-BDS scam) during his tenure as the Union Health Minister in the National Front Government at the Centre in 1990, that is, 23 years ago. He was convicted in this case by a Special CBI judge on September 19. As they say—the law eventually catches up with those who violate it.

These developments are a direct fall-out of the Supreme Court verdict of July 10, 2013 disqualifying legislators and parliamentarians convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act or other Acts and sentenced to two years or more in prison, from being members of the concerned legislatures or Parliament and from contesting elections for six years. The judgment of the Apex Court had revoked Section 8(4) of the Representation of the People’s Act which enabled the convicted MPs and MLAs to remain members of the lawmaking bodies if they appealed to higher courts. This judgment dealt a body-blow to the growing number of such MPs and MLAs manifesting the increasing criminalisation of the polity against which the civil society has raised its powerful voice over the years and in recent times in particular. [The SC later delivered another landmark judgment—with a view to ensuring wider voter participation and to “compel” political parties to field “sound” candidates with “integrity”, the Apex Court directed the Election Commission to provide an option for negative voting, by introducing a ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) slot in EVMs and ballot papers, so that voters are “able to exercise their right not to vote while maintaining their right of secrecy”.]

However, what is indisputable is that in order to save the convicted lawkakers the Manmohan Singh Government first went for a review petition in the Supreme Court that failed to change the opinion of the Apex Court in this regard. Thereafter a Bill was introduced in Parliament during its monsoon session to amend the Representation of People’s Act with the same purpose. The Bill’s introduction in the Lok Sabha was not opposed by the political parties, including those in the Opposition (barring two—the BJD and CPI). When it was brought in the Rajya Sabha, it was felt by the elders that the legislation needed thorough study and thus should be sent to the parliamentary. Standing Committee for further scrutiny. That was the consensual decision. However, on September 24 the Union Cabinet suddenly cleared an Ordinance on the subject and sent it to the President for his assent. The Ordinance was aimed at neutralising the effect of the July 10 Supreme Court judgment and allowing the convicted and sentenced MPs and MLAs to remain members of the specific law-making bodies without drawing any salary and participating in elections in those bodies.

The Union Government’s sudden and hasty recourse to the Ordinance route drew sharp protests from the Opposition, notably the BJP, which characterised the government’s decision as an attempt to defend ‘cheats, frauds and murderers’ and permit them to remain as lawmakers even after the law had caught up with them. The BJP leaders even went on a deputation to the President to express their resentment over the government’s step. They also alleged that the entire exercise was intended to save the Congress’ reliable ally, RJD supremo Laloo Prasad Yadav, and Congress MP Rasheed Masood from being disqualified from Parliament’s membership. President Pranab Mukherjee was reportedly concerned about the Ordinance and called two important Ministers of the Cabinet to discuss the issue with them. (As for the Left, they felt the Bill needed to be studied carefully in the Standing Committee so as to remove the infirmities in the SC verdict before bringing it to the two Houses; that is precisely why it was opposed to the hurried clearance given to the Ordinance by the Union Cabinet.)

Then came Friday (September 27) Congress spokesperson Ajay Maken (who happens to be the Congress’ Communications Department Chairman) was addressing a press conference in New Delhi’s Press Club of India—ironically he was justifying the Ordinance. That was when party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi walked in and launched a scathing attack on it. As The Indian Express reported.

Rahul said that before arriving at the conference, he had spoken to Maken who gave him the political line about the ordinance that “everybody will give you, the Congress will give you, the BJP will give you”.

“My opinion on the ordinance is that it is complete nonsence. I think it should be torn up and thrown out. That is my opinion. My personal opinion on the ordinance. I will repeat it for you. My opinion on the ordinanse is that it should be torn up and thrown away.

“The arguments that are being made and I have heard the arguments, in my organisation the argument that is being made is that, we need to do this—internally, I am telling you what is happening internally—we need to do this because of political considerations. Everybody does this. The Congress party does this, Janata Dal does this, the Samajwadi does this and everybody does this. And there is a time to stop this nonsense,” he said, speaking in an informal, chatty style.

“And I really feel it is about time that political parties, mine and all others, stop making these kind of compromises because if we want to actually fight corruption in this country, whether it is us the Congress party or the BJP, we cannot continue making these small compromises,” he said as Maken nodded.

“Because when we make these small compromises, then we compromise everything. So, that is my position on the ordinance. I am not interested in what any opposition leader says. I am interested in what the Congress party is doing. I am interested in what our government is doing and I feel, personally feel, what our government has done as far as this ordinance is concerned is wrong,” Rahul added.

The fate of the Ordinance was sealed then and there. The Congress leaders instantly changed tack. The government functionaries were also compelled to fall in line even if they could barely conceal their embarrassment. It was a transparent case of the prevalance of the dynastic culture, the hall-mark of the principal constituent of the ruling UPA. No doubt the essence of Rahul’s attack on the Ordinance was valid, but the manner of his outburst against it was totally uncalled for. A former Media Adviser to the PM, who had worked closely with Dr Manmohan Singh in UPA-I, gave vent to his feelings and blurted out: “After this shocking display of insubordination, I don’t see how the PM can continue in office.”

But that was not to be. Even before returning to the country from abroad, he ruled out resigning from his post.

Asked if Rahul’s statement terming the Ordinance as “nonsense” had undermined his authority, the PM’s reply, as reported in The Times of India, was non-committal:

“Well, I am not the master of what people say... I will try to find out the reasons why it had to be done that way and how do we handle it.” He added that the ordinance had been cleared by the Congress’ core group.
The answer only helped to reveal Dr Manmohan Singh’s state of mind.

Of course, Rahul had earlier written to the PM explaining his position on the Ordinance. In the letter he had conveyed his deep respects to the head of government. But then the tone of his outburst was quite different from the language of his letter. [Subsequently Rahul expressed “regrets” for having used “strong words” while decrying the Ordinance, but he pleaded that the “sentiments” behind his outburst should not be misunderstood.]

Predictably the BJP has assailed the Congress’ abject surrender to Rahul and asserted that that testified to the dominance of the dynastic approach over democratic functioning.

The logic is no doubt unexceptionable. But then does the BJP really believe in democratic principles? The question begs an answer even today. In fact it has assumed more significance at present when the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate is strutting about the national stage—after all, Narendra Modi’s body language and public pronoun-cements betray an authoritarian streak militating against the democratic ethos.

Nonetheless, the net effect of all this has been devastating for the affected politicos now in prison, Laloo Prasad in particular. From the standpoint of probity in public life this is of phenomenal significance, especially as the decision to withdraw the Ordinance and the Bill (in Parliament) was taken on Gandhiji’s 144th birth anniversary.

There is also strength in the argument that Rahul Gandhi’s “intervention” has brought about a sea change in the polity (although there is no gainsaying that his belated exercise in targeting the Ordinance was actually a reflection of the overall public mood and hence the credit for this change must necessarily go to the people at large). But whether this will politically help the Congress in the run-up to the forthcoming general elections is anyone’s guess (now that ‘Modi-mania’ has gripped large sections in north India). Yet the prevailing the impact of this change is bound to be positive in the long run as lawmakers would henceforth find it difficult to break the law with impunity since any such move on their part will invite strong legal response.

October 4 S.C.

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