Of Criticism Misplaced And Transgressions Ignored

Updated: Oct 20 2002, 05:30am hrs
When a President dines with a Prime Minister, privately, that should not be news. But this is India, and it was news, and for a strange reason. The Congress spokesperson objected to the venue and not the menu. I have a different take on the matter. There was nothing wrong with the venue, which was the Prime Ministers official residence, but there was everything wrong with the menu. Prawns, fish and chicken, besides other dishes, in one meal are not good for a 72-year-old President or a 78-year-old Prime Minister. Nor does the menu go well at a time when there are communal riots, refugee camps, drought, parched fields and a grim year ahead.

The Congress should be concerned with more serious transgressions of constitutional propriety, but it has allowed them to pass without comment. For example, never in the history of the country has a minister of the government questioned the integrity of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). There is an established procedure for the audit of the governments accounts. CAG does not easily reach a conclusion; at every step he gives an opportunity to the government to explain its stand and persuade CAG that there is no ground for an audit objection. In fact, many audit paras are dropped and what appears in the final report are only the most egregious cases of misgovernance or waste or corruption.

The coffin scam was one such case. Whoever has heard of paying Rs 1,00,000 for a coffin Yet that is what the defence ministry did and the ministry was rightly upbraided by CAG for the scam. Defence minister George Fernandes knows that, even thereafter, the CAGs report would have to be taken up by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) where his ministry would have an opportunity to clear any doubts. Assuming the PAC was also critical of the purchase, its report would go to Parliament (which would discuss the issue some months or years down the line) and the government and the minister concerned would have yet another opportunity to defend themselves.

The old Fernandes, as an Opposition MP, would have demanded that the procedure be observed scrupulously. But for the new Fernandes, an honourable minister, constitutional propriety is a millstone and, therefore, he throws it to the wind and takes on CAG in an open, no-holds barred attack.

Take the case of Arun Shourie, an honourable and capable minister. Never in the history of the Republic has a serving minister ventured to criticise publicly a judgment of the Supreme Court. But that is precisely what Shourie did in the Ayodhya case. The government was a party to the case before the Court, and it was bound by the judgment. Every minister of the government is bound by the judgment. The government unlike a private citizen is not entitled to question the judgment of the Supreme Court, except by way of an application for review. If a minister of the government wishes to criticise the Supreme Court, the honourable course would be to quit the government and give expression to his views.

The Election Commission of India is another important constitutional functionary. Only recently, it successfully conducted an election in Jammu and Kashmir. In Gujarat, the Commission took an informed and wise decision to defer the elections to the month of December. For that reason, it was subjected to an unprecedented verbal assault by the BJP and its leaders, including ministers and legal luminaries. Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi insinuated that the Chief Election Commissioner, James Michael Lyngdoh, was part of a Christian conspiracy against the Hindu people of Gujarat. From Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani to the BJP spokesperson and general secretary, Arun Jaitley, everyone treated the Election Commission as a punching bag, and no one thought twice about the enormous damage that was being done to an institution that is crucial to our democratic system. The shouting brigade was forced to shut up only after the Supreme Court virtually endorsed the Election Commissions decision to postpone the elections in Gujarat. The last word, however, has not been said.

The Election Commission will face more trials in the run-up to the elections and the BJP, its Parivar and Modi can be expected to become more intemperate and intolerant.

All these examples pale into the background in the light of Karnatakas defiance of the Supreme Court. Article 141 of the Constitution lays down that the law declared by the Supreme Court is binding throughout the territory of India. There is a vital distinction between the rule of man (Monarchy, Oligarchy, Dictatorship) and the rule of law (Democracy, Republic). India made its choices in 1947 and 1950. We chose to be governed by the law. The foundation on which law rests is the adage Howsoever high you may be the law is above you.

Karnataka chief minister SM Krishna, a lawyer and a Rhodes Scholar, is surely not unaware of his obligation under the Constitution. Yet, he has brazenly defied the order of the Supreme Court (which did no more than endorse the decision of the Cauvery River Authority) to release 9000 cubic meters per second of water to Tamil Nadu. What will happen to the Republic and the federal system if every Chief Minister decided to defy the orders of the Supreme Court

No doubt the Congress Party has a vital political stake in Karnataka but, equally, it has a paramount duty to protect constitutional governance. The silence of the Congress national leadership, even as a major constitutional crisis is unfolding, is unpardonable. In the long run, the Congress will realize that its stance is self-defeating and will encourage defiance of the Constitution and the laws. When the Congress regains power at the Centre, its ambivalence will come back to haunt the party.

We have got used to cacophony of voices in the Central government. The casualties are economic policies and governance. But when partisan politics descends to the level of undermining constitutional authorities, that should serve as a wake-up call to the nation, and to those who cherish liberty, the rule of law and republican values.

(The author is former Union finance minister)