Defeat of morality

Published : Aug 15, 2008 00:00 IST

The UPA governments victory in the trust vote shows that bribery and criminality are becoming part of the countrys political system.

THE success of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in getting a majority in the confidence vote on July 22 has come as a respite for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally and for his government politically. This is a pyrrhic victory for the ruling party; it has won a battle but may lose the war in the coming four to eight months.

When a cauldron is stirred, dirty sediments from the bottom come floating to the surface. If it were not for the cross-voting by 15 Members of Parliament and the abstentions of 10, the government motion could have been defeated. Most of the MPs and leaders who took quick decisions to support or oppose the government were motivated not by any issue of public importance, but on the localised demands of the party concerned or the personal aspirations of its leader. The numbers game revealed the alarming deterioration in the political norms of morality.

The practice of members and leaders changing parties on principle or on the basis of personal equations has been there all along in India. Regarding defections in the State legislatures, there were 542 cases in the first 15 years of independent India and 438 in 1967-68 alone during the infamous saga of Aya Rams and Gaya Rams. In this peak year, the numbers game affected the major political parties more; the Congress gained 139 defecting members and lost 175 while the Jan Sangh got three and lost 16. The burst of defections was politically legitimised when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called for voting according to conscience in 1969 to defeat the very presidential candidate set up by the Congress party and nominated by herself.

Whatsoever has been the result of the division on July 22 in the government motion, it is obvious that in the process of winning the numbers game by blatant offers of money bags and ministerial postings and purchasing accomplishments, both sides effectively combined to defeat the norms of political morality.

Bribery and criminality are increasingly becoming part of the political activities in the country. There is a growing tendency in major parties to allot the ticket and offer ministerial berths to persons well known for their corrupt and criminal records. In the appeal For Eradication of Corruption and Criminality from Indian Politics submitted on November 9, 2005, to the President, the Prime Minister and others in high offices, the veteran Gandhian S.D. Sharma of the Lok Sevak Sangh, New Delhi, was stated thus: In the 13th Lok Sabha, the newspapers had reported that there were about 40 tainted MPs; in the 14th Lok Sabha, there are about 100 tainted MPs and about 7 tainted Ministers. We call them tainted, not because the Opposition says so, but because they themselves have admitted in their sworn affidavits filed with their nomination papers listing serious criminal cases pending against them in various courts.

The Prime Minister and his Ministers reeled out prepared statements on the achievements of the government in the growth of gross domestic product (GDP), flow of foreign investment, schemes and allotments initiated, and so on. But they were not concerned about the disgusting moral bankruptcy that is corroding the country over the economic prosperity at the macro level.

In his India of My Dreams, Mahatma Gandhi made it clear that he was not for economic development at the cost of ethics and morality. Defining the objective of a social worker, he stated: If he concerns himself with economics alone and disregards ethics and morality, all our efforts are of no avail. (October 8, 1944, The Collected Works).

Presenting the Draft Constitution on November 4, 1948, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar quoted the historian George Grote to emphasise the importance of constitutional morality: The diffusion of constitutional morality, not merely among the majority of any community but throughout the whole, is the indispensable condition of a government at once free and peaceable; since even any powerful and obstinate minority may render the working of a free institution impracticable, without being strong enough to conquer ascendancy for themselves.

Ambedkar added: The question is, can we presume such a diffusion of constitutional morality? Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.

While submitting the finalised Draft of the Constitution on November 26, 1949, he cautioned Free India against placing its freedom at the feet of an individual, however great he may be. He said: The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions. There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish patriot Daniel OConnell, No man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity, and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero worship plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.

He spoke thus in the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Vallabhbhai Patel and other great leaders of modern India. Is it possible, in present times, for a member of a party to give such warnings against personality cult and sycophancy of any leader?

What is criminal according to law has become politically acceptable and honourable. Previously political parties used money power and ministerial power to bribe voters during election times; now they purchase elected members in groups. The former was retail trade in corruption while the latter is wholesale trade in corruption.

In July 1993, a no-confidence motion was moved against the Congress government of P.V. Narasimha Rao; at that time, the Congress had only 251 of the 528 MPs in Lok Sabha and was short by 14 members for a simple majority. Without any trouble or conscience, Narasimha Rao and his coterie managed to purchase MPs from a party in the Opposition and succeeded in defeating the motion 265-251. Confidence in corruption succeeded defeating a no-confidence motion.

In February 1996, one Ravindra Kumar filed a complaint with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that there was a criminal conspiracy in 1993 in which some prominent members of the ruling party had bribed some other members to defeat the no-confidence motion. In March 1996, the CBI registered first information reports (FIRs) against four Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MPs. On a complaint, the Delhi High Court ordered the CBI in May 1996 to register a fresh FIR to include the name of Narasimha Rao. The former Prime Minister and others alleged to have bribed the four members filed leave petitions in the Supreme Court seeking constitutional immunity under Article 105(2), which provides: No member of Parliament shall be liable to any proceedings in any court in respect of anything said or any vote given by him in Parliament or any committee thereof, and no person shall be so liable in respect of the publication by or under the authority of either House of Parliament of any report, paper, votes or proceedings.

In this case, P.V. Narasimha Rao vs State (AIR 1998, SC 2120), the Supreme Court, in a three-two verdict, ruled: Therefore the bribe taker MPs who have voted in Parliament against no-confidence motion are entitled to protection of Article 105(2) and are not answerable in a court of law for alleged conspiracy and agreement. It also ruled: To the bribe giver MPs, the protection under Article 105(2) is not available. The apex court says that the MPs are also under the purview of the Prevention of Corruption Act. Since no prosecution could be launched under the Act without the sanction of the competent authority and as there was no such authority in the case of MPs, the Supreme Court said that Parliament should name the competent authority with due expedition. However, no action was taken by Parliament in this regard.

For the past 50 months, the Manmohan Singh government has failed in all aspects of governance, especially in respect of economic and political management, resulting in steep inflation and unbearable price rises. To hide its own failures and divert the attention of the people, it is keen to expedite the nuclear pact with the United States without making transparent the protective safeguards that have been established.

The unloading of wads of thousand-rupee notes on the table of the House by three MPs who complained that they were bribed to support the government was shocking. The Speaker assured the House that due legal action will be taken on the event. Unless the Supreme Court decision is revised or the laws on corruption and anti-defection are amended suitably, a bribe-taking member voting in the House may easily escape prosecution. Hence the government and Parliament should take immediate steps to set right the legal position on these deficiencies. Further, Parliament by law should ensure that the government should get its approval before activating any pact with a foreign government or institution.

In India, the people are losing confidence in Parliament owing to its disorderly functioning. There is inaction on the part of MPs in the matter of focussing the attention of the government and the people through purposeful debates in the House. There is every danger that the people may not only lose faith in the functioning of the members of legislative bodies and the legislatures themselves but eventually throw out the entire system of parliamentary democracy itself.

In his The Spirit of Laws, Charles de Montesquieu wrote: As all human things have an end, the state we are speaking of will lose its liberty, will perish. Have not Rome, Sparta and Carthage perished? It will perish when the legislative power shall be more corrupt than the executive (page 74 of the Britannica Great Books, Vol. 38, 1952 ed.). Corruption in legislative institutions, rather than in any other field, is the most dangerous one for the country. It is true that all members cannot be charged with corruption. It is said that Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It may be taken now that the wielders and seekers of power are small in number and are scattered in selected places, but the corrupting power may combine and grow to become absolute.

The Indian National Congress has a great historical tradition of fighting for the freedom of the country under the great leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and several other eminent leaders who were all keen that India after attaining political freedom should further strive to win economic, social and moral freedom. On this point, Gandhiji observed: Indian National Congress, which is the oldest national political organisation and which has after many battles fought her non-violent way to freedom, cannot be allowed to die. It can only die with the nation. A living organism ever grows or it dies. The Congress has won political freedom, but it has yet to win economic freedom, social and moral freedom. These freedoms are harder than the political, if only because they are constructive, less exciting and not spectacular. All-embracing constructive work evokes the energy of all the units of the million. The Congress has got the preliminary and necessary part of her freedom. The hardest has yet to come. In its difficult ascent to democracy, it has inevitably created rotten boroughs leading to corruption and creation of institutions, popular and democratic only in name. How to get out of the weedy and unwieldy growth?

In the end of the short note, he was apprehensive of the Congress party being lost in the lust for power, and stated: If it [Congress] engages in the ungainly skirmish for power, it will find one fine morning that it is no more. Thank God, it is now no longer in sole possession of the field. I have only opened to view the distant scene. If I have the time and health, I hope to discuss in these columns what the servants of the nation can do to raise themselves in the estimation of their masters, the whole of the adult population, male and female.

This note by Gandhiji got published in Harijan on February 1, 1948, and unfortunately, by that time he was no more.

India needs another Mahatma Gandhi and another kind of Congress party to win economic, social and moral freedom. This may be a difficult task as the political freedom won by India is itself tottering, following the decline of political morality. Still, let us strive and hope for a brave new generation to emerge and to free India and its people in all respects.

Era Sezhiyan is a former, Member of Parliament.

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