back to issue

WHAT should one make of the barely disguised and unaesthetic glee of some members of the political class on the ‘conviction’ of the former PM in the JMM case. The bland statements of the official spokespersons of Rao’s party, the Congress(I), that they ‘respect’ the judgement of the special court signals more their desire for proximity to the current power centre in the party than any acceptance or faith in the majesty of law. At least, lawyer-politician Kapil Sibal was more honest in his remark that our legal system, on the rare occasion that it does concern itself with the powerful, does so only when they are ‘down and out’.

Many are ‘sad’ that Rao has met this fate. They applaud his memory because he ushered in economic reforms; even more that he was the first, and so far the only, non-Nehru-Gandhi politician to complete a full term as prime minister, thereby rescuing Indian’s top job from the ‘natural’ claims of the family. They, of course, conveniently forget his somnambulent role as home minister during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots or as PM during the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

There is much more that Rao will have to answer for. His ‘alleged’ role in the urea scam, wherein his son (along with others) remains charged with engineering a pay-off of Rs 133 crore to a fly-by-might Turkish company, ostensibly to import much needed fertiliser. In the process, those responsible subverted every economic institution – from public sector banks to the cabinet committee on economic affairs. And, unlike the more famous Bofors case, not a gram of urea reached the country.

Nevertheless, for Rao to be ‘hung’ in the JMM case, that too on the technicality of having conspired to bribe MPs to save his government in a no-confidence motion debate, is a bit like crucifying Indira Gandhi for electoral misdimeanours in using Yashpal Kapoor, a public official, as her election agent. Even those crusaders ever keen to damn the political class, grudgingly agree that this is a bit unfair. But then, Al Capone, was finally nabbed on a tax avoidance charge.

Rao, of course, can appeal and he will, as the other convicted politician Buta Singh has. There is reasonable likelihood that the higher court may exonerate them, once again on technicalities. But, there is little doubt that public opinion does see him as guilty. They just don’t swallow the ‘unfairness’ of letting the other co-accused, including the more unsavoury Satish Sharma and Bhajan Lal, off, or upholding the somewhat specious distinction between bribe givers and bribe takers.

Among the other questions that this judgement throws up is the ‘immunity’ our political class has managed for itself for acts committed as part of their legislative functions. Consequently, there is little, legally, which can be done for engineering splits and defections, promising pliant MPs superior posts, or even kow-towing to pressure from allies or factions by announcing special programmes of relief or subsidy – a process that we have increasingly witnessed in recent years. That this may cause far greater harm to the public exchequer is quietly accepted as the stuff of politics.

Another is the use/misuse of the legal system, in particular through the institution of special courts or through PILs, to ‘fix’ political opponents. It is widely believed that Rao used this route to silence dissenters in his own party, or ‘tarnish’ those in others in the Hawala case. The appointment of judges and special prosecutors is after all an executive privelege. The fact that a number of them have political connections or are seen as pliable is hardly hidden, though rarely openly talked about. Judges too enjoy immunity, and though the provision was instituted to shield them from pressure from both the executive and legislature, it is liable to misuse in terms of hiding judicial impropriety. And, of course, there is the permanent Damocles sword of ‘contempt of court’.

We do need to evolve mechanisms to cleanse out corruption and criminality from the apex of our system, to ensure accountability of rulers. The judiciary does offer one such route. The downside is, to use Harish Khare’s evocative phase, that ‘judicial vigil can degenerate into judicial vigilantism.’ Settling political scores through a recourse to the courts or the media, increasingly a favoured route, while using empty moralisms such as ‘everyone is equal in the eyes of the law’ or the public, can well turn out to be a case of the cure being worse than the disease.


Harsh Sethi