Attacking democracy to ‘save’ it

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Business Standard, December 24, 2010

While we reflect on our follies at year-end and seek to correct them, we do not need to lose our heads or be intimidated by exaggerated fears

The wasted session of Parliament just concluded should be reason for reflection over the negativism that has seized the polity like a malignant fever. This is surely a distressing ending to 2010, the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Indian National Congress that marks a great democratic tradition.

In aggregate, barely one day in 23 was spent by either House in transacting business. The rest was riotously obstructed by the BJP and Left calling for discussion and answers on the 2G and other matters but yet not permitting Parliament to function. In December 2001, a terrorist attack on Parliament House, the core symbol of India?s democracy, was foiled. But did the security personnel protect the structural edifice merely to witness the disablement of Parliament as an institution?

The persistent disruption of both Houses constitutes a pervasive and sinister attack on Parliament that cannot be condoned. That the government refused to accede to the Opposition demand for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) to investigate the 2G episode offers little extenuation. The government, including the prime minister, could have been arraigned and compelled to offer credible answers or face obloquy. Further, the CAG report was due to be scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) comprising members from both Houses and chaired by a senior Opposition leader. As events unfolded, these procedures were reinforced by a CBI probe monitored by the Supreme Court and an investigation by a former Supreme Court judge.

None of the four earlier JPCs was terribly effective. Hence that route offers little comfort, barring opportunity to prolong the controversy for electoral gain. The PAC is a vital limb of Parliament embodied in its rules, whereas the JPC is an ad hoc body that has occasionally been set up by Parliament. Having two parallel bodies examining the identical matter could have created contradictions and fresh controversies to the detriment of clarity and a clear finding. Unfortunately, the Opposition appears bent on continuing its disruptive tactics into the Budget session. Hopefully better counsels will prevail.

The government may be guilty of dereliction of duty and delay or of having succumbed to the pettiest pressure of self-serving coalition politics. If this is established, it will undoubtedly pay a political price, while those guilty of criminal misconduct will not go unpunished. But if due process is abandoned for lynch-mob justice, the consequences for the nation could be dire.

Emotions have unfortunately been whipped up by a media-led public opinion that has turned totally cynical with the breakdown of due process. Added to this is the open soliciting of bribery and corruption to grease an increasingly venal electoral system that runs on money and muscle power and crude vote bank politics. Robbing the people of India to win elections (only to disrupt legislatures at will) has become endemic. The media, perhaps the most powerful institution in India today, has also abandoned its mission, as trustee of the people?s right to know, for commerce. Barring exceptions, competitive trivia and hype have dumbed sensibilities. The 2G transaction undoubtedly saw considerable leakage. But the Rs 1,760 lakh crore figure bandied about is largely notional and ignores the huge social benefit from low spectrum prices leading to falling call rates and an exponential growth of telephony which, on current reckoning, would account for part of the impugned ?loss?.

Why should the intensified CBI investigation, backdated to 2001, be considered a whitewash? Either one wants to get at the whole truth, even belatedly, or not. And how was the prime minister wrong to admit corporate and wider public nervousness about misuse of telephone taps officially ordered on security consideration or grounds of criminal investigation? Surely he was right to assert that privacy would be protected against possible access of telephone conversations ?outsides the institutional framework of government?, even while noting an ?ethical deficit? on the part of corporate India. It is strange that Mr Advani faulted this statement as a red herring intended to obfuscate the corporate-official nexus revealed by the Radia tapes!

The government has now stated that the prime minister is prepared to appear before the PAC and, further, to hold a special session of Parliament to debate whether or not a JPC should be set up. This is a fair offer and not a climbdown from principle. The BJP has, however, launched a national campaign to press for a JPC on its terms and is calling for the resignation of the government if it fails to accept its stated terms of surrender. The BJP ?campaign? will steer clear of Karnataka, an exception that tells a tale of double standards.

So, while we reflect on our follies at year-end and seek to correct them, we do not need to lose our heads or be intimidated by exaggerated fears.

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