Systemic strains

Published : Dec 15, 2006 00:00 IST

MULAYAM SINGH YADAV, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. - SUBIR ROY

MULAYAM SINGH YADAV, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. - SUBIR ROY

When the Centre and the States are ruled by rival parties, the issue of maintaining public order gets politicised and diluted.

AFEW days ago, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shivsankar Menon flew down to Chennai to brief Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi on the current situation in Sri Lanka. I thought this was a grand gesture aimed at including Tamil Nadu in whatever New Delhi wanted to do for the island-nation. We know that now Karunanidhi has unbelievable clout with the Centre. Also true is that the issues involved have a high emotive connotation as far as the law and order scene in the State is concerned. Notwithstanding these obvious factors, New Delhi has been sagacious in making the Chief Minister feel comfortable that he will be a part of the decision-making process.

No one in the capital knows Tamil Nadu better than Narayanan. Although I do not have access to any information on the matter, I am almost certain that Narayanan was instrumental in persuading Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to establish this kind of rapport with Karunanidhi in respect of Sri Lanka so that no one later complains that the State government was not consulted.

This style of federalism has come to prevail in a number of sectors. This is something that we should be happy about because it reflects maturity and magnanimity in the polity, two elements that are in danger of extinction in public life in the country.

While `public order' is a State subject under the Constitution, there are many occasions when the Centre has to play a decisive primary role or a supportive one. Normally, New Delhi is not found wanting in taking the initiative. The Ministry of Home Affairs is the vehicle through which the Centre performs this function. But this is not so smooth an operation as many believe it to be. There are problems, as when those who rule at the Centre and in a State facing a serious public order issue belong to different political persuasions. Politics gets injected into the process, and the primary task of maintaining law and order gets diluted. Police forces in the ground get neutralised, and the common man suffers. Similar situations are now seen in Uttar Pradesh, where Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and Governor T.V. Rajeswar are locked in a verbal wrangle.

For some time now, relations between the two dignitaries have been frosty, if not exactly hostile. Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose political supremacy has reportedly suffered marginal erosion, is under constant fear that the Governor is being used by the Centre to undermine his position and pave the way for President's Rule.

Whether New Delhi has such designs or not, a certain distrust has crept in that has implications for law and order. This is nothing new. Several States, including Tamil Nadu, have in the past gone through a phase of lack of warmth and confidence between Chief Minister and Governor. The point is what does a Governor do when he finds that the police in a State are ineffective and the situation is slipping?

In the Uttar Pradesh case, the Governor is reported to have made a few unflattering references to the police a few weeks ago in the presence of the Chief Minister. I can effectively describe the situation only by quoting the Lucknow Special Correspondent of The Hindu (November 24):

"The Uttar Pradesh Governor, T.V. Rajeswar, on Thursday demolished Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav's recent claims on the law and order situation in the State by expressing displeasure at the functioning of the police force. He pulled up the police for `the rising crime rate' and said police officers had functioned in a blatantly partial manner in the recent local bodies elections across the State... . Addressing a gathering that included the Chief Minister and senior government officials after inaugurating the annual `Police Week' celebrations here, the Governor said he had received nearly 1,000 complaints of poll irregularities and that these were referred to government officials but no report was forthcoming. He said some officials had failed to perform their duties impartially.

"Talking to newspersons later, the Chief Minister offered a word of advice for the Governor. He said he would remind Mr. Rajeswar that sanctity was attached to the Governor's office and he should strive to uphold it instead of interfering in Government functioning. `The Governor's is a constitutional post and he should only fulfil his constitutional responsibilities,' the Chief Minister added. Mr. Yadav reiterated that the law and order and crime situation in the State had improved and said a fact-finding commission should be set up under a sitting Supreme Court Judge to verify the law and order situation in U.P., Delhi and Mumbai."

There are two issues here. First, was the Governor entitled to say what he said? Next, would he have said all this if there had been a Congress government in the State? The latter is a matter of conjecture. Knowing him as I do, I guess he would still have done this, possibly using milder expressions. On the issue of propriety, I believe a Governor cannot be a mute spectator to things happening around him. He does not deserve the pomp and paraphernalia that go with the office if he does not step in whenever his conscience dictates that he better tell the Executive what he thinks the administration's shortcomings are. I am happy that the Uttar Pradesh Governor has been brutally candid. I wish many more Governors would adopt his style so that we really have checks and balances on the ground instead of only on paper.

I know I will be annoying many Chief Ministers by taking this stand. But many mature Chief Ministers would welcome the guiding hand of a polished and experienced Governor, with the possible caveat that any advice given should be in private and not in an open forum such as a police conference.

The Chief Minister's call for a commission to probe the law and order situation in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Mumbai is interesting. It seems more rhetoric than a serious offer to submit himself to such an inquisition. The point he is driving home is that Congress-ruled regions are not any better policed than his own Uttar Pradesh. My response is that it is poor consolation if Uttar Pradesh is as bad as Delhi or Mumbai.

This brings me to the age-old question, how does one measure law and order in a city or State? Crime statistics are a poor yardstick because we know how they hardly reflect the ground situation. A majority of crimes in many parts of the country go unregistered. My own guess is that the few that are registered are those too blatant to cover up. Many others that manage to get into police records are those in which the complainants have had to go to senior officers with a plea for registration. In respect of the remaining incidents, the Station House Officer would have agreed to put down an FIR only after his palm had been greased. When this is the situation, how does one evaluate the law and order situation? Ultimately, only popular perceptions form the basis for judging how bad the situation in a State is.

The Rajeswar-Mulayam spat, however entertaining it may be to many of us out of government, is, unfortunately, an unwelcome distraction from an overall serious situation in the country. Both Home Minister Shivraj Patil and the Prime Minister, who addressed the recent annual conference of Directors-General of Police convened by the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), highlighted the need for continued vigilance against terrorism. They seemed to convey the I.B. assessment that many of our vital installations, including atomic power plants, could be the next targets. We can ignore this threat only at our peril.

It is not as if the State Police and Central paramilitary forces are not aware of this or are negligent. They cannot, however, protect such places without the utmost cooperation from those who work inside them or from those who have otherwise authorised access to them. It is for the top management of such installations to ensure that no breach is swept under the carpet as insignificant. Those who have sinister designs will first opt for a dry run and, if it succeeds, will make a serious foray thereafter. The Rajiv Gandhi assassination, which was preceded by such a drill, is a stark reminder that no incident is too trivial for those who are charged with the responsibility of security in vital establishments. Just now, nuclear terrorism is a concept on paper. It may not remain so forever.

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