Interview: Vayalar Ravi

A case for political consensus

Print edition : November 01, 2013

Vayalar Ravi. Photo: K. RAMESH BABU

Interview with Union Minister Vayalar Ravi.

VAYALAR RAVI, Union Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, is considered to be among the last of the Nehruvians in the Congress and is known for speaking his mind on issues ranging from economic liberalisation and trade union rights to judicial intervention in the responsibilities and privileges of the legislature. Time and again, he has criticised what he terms the “transgression of some section of the judiciary into the realm of policy decisions of the executive and its unwarranted urge to take over and run the administration”. He spoke to Frontline in the context of the recent Supreme Court judgments with a direct bearing on political practice in the country. Excerpts:

In the recent Supreme Court judgments (in ‘Lily Thomas’, ‘Jan Chaukidar’ and ‘PUCL’) the judiciary seems to have raised an open challenge to certain facets of political practice in the country. There is also the perception that the political class, and the UPA government in particular, has been found wanting in formulating concrete responses to these developments.

India's contemporary political practice is a complex phenomenon characterised by diverse pulls and pressures at different levels of the social and political structures. I see the present developments in the judiciary with a direct bearing on politics as yet another manifestation of this complex process. Many facets of the judgments you have referred to reflect genuine concerns about the state of the polity, shared by large sections of the educated class. At that level, they have tremendous relevance. But, as I have stated in the past, the judiciary is one of the pillars of our constitutional structure and needs to work in consonance with the other pillars, even if it is to rectify negative social and political tendencies. I am not sure that all sections of the judiciary have this understanding ingrained in them. Your point about the limitations in the response from the political class is also, in many ways, a reflection of the complex political process. The fragmentation of politics, which has gathered momentum over the past three decades or so, has given rise to multiple perspectives based on sectarian identities such as region, caste and subcaste. The play of these perspectives at different levels of the polity and the influence they have on the national political structure work against the development of concrete and constructive responses from the political class.

As for the Congress, any student of politics will know that as a political organisation we have not been aggressive champions of any of these manifestations of sectarian or identity-based politics. The party and the government it leads have sought to formulate responses guided by a sense of moderation. And moderation is not accepted as a virtue at all points of time. Taken in totality, the judicial verdicts not only pose challenges to the political class but also offer opportunities to break new ground. It is not as though these opportunities have not been pointed out. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s response on the ordinance that sought to overcome disqualification of convicted legislators is a step in this direction. He made it clear that if we want to fight corruption in the country, whether it is Congress or BJP, we cannot continue making these small compromises. He also pointed out that to make these small compromises is to compromise everywhere. Overall, we need to see whether we can understand this context in the right spirit and sit together and work towards concrete and constructive responses.

But Rahul Gandhi’s outburst is testimony to the rampant confusion in the government and the Congress on the issue. It is also seen as undermining the authority of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Can a response from the political class evolve in these undemocratic terms?

Once again, all this has to be understood in the larger perspective that I explained earlier; of the complex political situation and the Congress path of moderation. Of course, one can debate the way in which the Rahul Gandhi initiative unfolded and the modalities that could have been employed to advance the point of view, but it would be a big mistake not to see the new thinking in this intervention. There is a larger message for the polity in it.

In many ways, this reminded me of Rajiv ji’s enthusiastic endeavours to enhance computerisation and information technology in the 1980s. It was nothing short of a mission for him, while the majority of the political class criticised the initiative citing several reasons. I remember how some people branded those endeavours as foolish dreams. There was opposition in the Congress too. I, too, was opposed to his missionary zeal. As a committed trade unionist, my view was that computerisation would lead to loss of jobs. But today the whole country remembers Rajiv ji for taking those early, visionary steps and thanks him for that. In fact, the idea of computerisation at that point of time was indeed the idea of a new India. And as a trade unionist I also realise now that computerisation can create new jobs too. I am certain that many years later Rahul Gandhi's intervention of September 2013 will also be evaluated in similar terms. If nothing else, I believe that the new generation of young Indians will relate to his warning against small compromises.

So, granting that this signifies a new thinking and a new beginning, how can the political class, and particularly the Congress, take this forward?

Again, there is no single answer to this. There is no magic-wand formula. A beginning has been made, a new idea has been put forward and it has been followed up by action by the government in relation to a particular ordinance. But if this has to be taken forward, the political class, particularly the mainstream parties, must sit together, try to understand the various dimensions of the questions raised by the judicial intervention, evolve a consensus, and come up with specific and sensible proposals. We will have to keep petty politicking away if we are to do this. I do not want to take names, but consensus cannot be worked out if you argue for different yardsticks for different people. You cannot take this process anywhere if you are going to cry yourself hoarse for punishment of a political opponent on corruption charges and at the same time argue that a mass murderer belonging to your own political outfit is only a victim of conspiracy and seek lenience.

Do you see any signs of this process developing?

I think it will develop because it is an idea whose time has come. The young people of India are looking for a cleaner administration and a more refined political class. So, one way or the other their aspirations have to concretise. One may not see immediate signs of this, but as somebody who has observed and participated in politics for more than five decades I think our democracy will evolve in this new path.

So, for a change, you accept that the judiciary has taken definitive steps to cleanse the political system.

As a staunch Nehruvian, I am ready to acknowledge a positive contribution from any institution whatever be its other limitations. I think the overall thrust of the recent judicial interventions needs to be seen in perspective. As I said earlier, it is the manifestation of a complex socio-political process. That does not mean that the judiciary is out with a broom and is cleaning up the political system.

The judiciary’s overall track record can still be called to question on parameters such as its predisposition to the privileged sections of society. The judgments and interventions of legal luminaries like Justices V.R. Krishna Iyer and Jeevan Reddy brought in some change in favour of the poor and the marginalised. Later, the instrument of PIL [public interest litigation] brought in some positive impact in the same direction. But now I am told that there are studies showing that even this democratic instrument is being misused to pander to elitist and superfluous concerns. So, the point is to see this trajectory collectively without isolating any institution for blanket praise or reproach. This trajectory has many elements, including the history of social development. The question is how well we understand this when we think of new solutions for new times.

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