Tainted credibility

Published : Jul 02, 2004 00:00 IST

The Opposition National Democratic Alliance's campaign against the appointment of `tainted' Ministers lacks credibility in view of its own record in the matter during its six years in power.

in New Delhi

IT is not unusual for Parliament to adjourn without debating the purpose for which it has met, especially when the pulls and pressures of a fractured polity find an echo in its proceedings and affect its normal functioning. It is, however, rare that the treasury benches and the Opposition slug it out in both Houses in the very first session after a general election and force its adjournment after adopting, without discussion, the motion of thanks to the President's address.

Both Houses of Parliament, convened on June 2, adjourned sine die on June 10 after the Opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) disrupted proceedings demanding the sacking of `tainted' Ministers in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Indeed, the NDA unveiled its disruptive strategy even before Manmohan Singh could introduce his Ministers to the House, a prerogative of the Prime Minister. He had to complete the formality on June 4 amidst the din and commotion caused by an unruly Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, L.K. Advani, who had no compunction in continuing as Deputy Prime Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government despite facing a charge-sheet in the Babri Masjid demolition case, intervened to remind Manmohan Singh of the "ethical" necessity to keep "tainted" persons out of the Council of Ministers.

Following President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's address to both Houses on June 7, NDA leaders, who were critical of the government's policy announcements as expressed in Kalam's address, could have expressed their reservations in Parliament on any day between June 8 and 10, the last day of the first session. Instead, they disrupted the proceedings of both Houses on the first day and forced the presiding officers to adjourn the Houses. In their memorandum to the President, NDA leaders drew his attention to specific instances of Ministers who are charge-sheeted in cases of corruption, abuse of power and other serious crimes. They claimed: "A time-tested precedent followed substantially in the country that a person accused/charge-sheeted/facing trial in cases relating to corruption, abuse of power, mafia-related crime should not occupy any office has been completely sacrificed at the altar of political expediency."

However, the memorandum avoided any discussion on how this precedent came to be established and was allowed to be compromised by the NDA government during its six years in power. The precedent was set during the tenure of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, in the wake of the multi-crore hawala scam involving political leaders of the BJP and the Congress(I). When the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) decided to charge-sheet BJP leaders such as Advani and M.L. Khurana and Congress Ministers such as Madhavrao Scindia, Kamal Nath and Rajesh Pilot in January 1996, it led to a political storm and eventually their resignation. Advani quit his membership of the Lok Sabha; he sought re-election only after he was acquitted of all charges by the trial court. Since then, the BJP has drawn a distinction between `political' allegations and those involving a person's moral turpitude to drive home the point that it is only when a person belonged to the latter category that he/she would be `ineligible' to hold pubic office. However, the rest of the political class did not subscribe to the subtle distinction made by the BJP for the sake of political expediency.

The NDA's claim that it was a time-tested precedent is duplicitous and outrageous. Advani was facing a charge-sheet in the Babri Masjid demolition case for inciting kar sevaks to demolish the masjid on December 6, 1992, and for causing communal disturbance. Although it was a serious charge, it was dismissed as an instance of political vendetta. BJP leaders like Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati were also accused of similar offences. As Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had stoutly resisted demands to get rid of Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati from his Council of Ministers.The omission of offences causing communal discord in the NDA's memorandum to the President appears to be a clever strategy to perpetuate the distinction between political and non-political offences and put the former on a higher pedestal. In its report on the recent general elections, the Delhi Election Watch, an independent body of concerned citizens and civil society groups, stated: "The laws of the land are common to all and the nature of the offences cannot be ignored or wished away merely because they relate to political activities. The question is whether unlawful assemblies, rioting and similar offences are the only way to pursue political activities or mobilise political strength."

The NDA's memorandum carried details of the various charges against Union Ministers Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mohammed Taslimuddin, Jay Prakash Narayan Yadav, Shibu Soren, M.A. Fatmi, and Prem Chand Gupta, all from Bihar, and sought the President's intervention to ensure that they quit the government in the interest of parliamentary democracy, national security and norms of probity in public life. However, the NDA leaders chose to be reticent on whether the continuance of Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati in the Vajpayee Ministry threatened these very interests. The three leaders were charged by the trial court under Section 153-A of the Indian Penal Code for their complicity in the demolition of Babri Masjid. Section 153-A makes promoting enmity between different groups on the basis of religion, race, place of birth, residence and language an offence.

Congress Working Committee member Ambika Soni told Frontline: "Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made it clear that the government would not intervene to defend any Minister facing trial in any court, and that the law would take its own course." Justifying the Congress' demand for the resignation of tainted Ministers in the NDA government, she said: "In the case of George Fernandes and Dilip Singh Judev, no more inquiry was needed as the tapes revealed it all. There was overwhelming evidence to suggest the involvement of Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati in the demolition case. Besides, Advani was the Home Minister and was in a position to influence the conduct of the probe. Hence there is no contradiction between our stand then and now." Judev, who quit the Vajpayee Ministry after being caught on camera accepting cash from an unidentified person in lieu of certain ministerial favours, is now back as the BJP's candidate for the Rajya Sabha elections, an action that will make the BJP's current campaign against the "tainted" Ministers less than credible.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which supports the UPA government from outside sees the BJP's campaign against the tainted Ministers as politically motivated. CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet demanded that NDA convener George Fernandes publicly accept that the NDA government was wrong in keeping charge-sheeted Ministers, before inviting the Left to fight jointly corruption and criminalisation of politics. Fernandes had written to Surjeet requesting him to endorse the protest against the induction of tainted Ministers in the Union Council of Ministers.

Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M) and Member of Parliament S. Ramachandran Pillai said the party was consistent in its stand that tainted persons should not hold ministerial offices. However, he added that the party also believed that the trial in such cases should be completed within two years from the date of complaint. As the trial in most of the cases against `tainted' Ministers in the UPA government had been dragging on for several years, it was not fair to deny them the opportunity to be Ministers on the ground of pending charges, he said.

The NDA's memorandum reveals that most of the cases registered against Laloo Prasad Yadav have been pending since 1996. Cases against Taslimuddin have been pending since 1996 and 1998. Jay Prakash Narayan Yadav is an accused in a vigilance case since 2000. Cases pending against other tainted Ministers date back to 1996 or 1998. All these Ministers have declared the details relating to these cases in their affidavits filed before the returning officers while filing their nomination papers to contest the Lok Sabha elections.

The Law Commission, in its 170th report submitted to the government in 1999, had recommended that the framing of charges shall constitute a ground for the disqualification of a candidate in respect of electoral offences and serious offences punishable with death or life imprisonment. However, the report added that such disqualification should last only for a period of five years or until the person was acquitted of those charges, whichever happened earlier. In case such a person is convicted by a court for any of these offences he gets disqualified under the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Therefore, even by the standards of electoral probity suggested by the Law Commission, the inordinate delay in the completion of the trial against the `tainted' members could constitute a ground for not stopping them from assuming ministerial office.

The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, set up by the NDA government, recommended thus: "Criminal cases against politicians pending before Courts either for trial or in appeal must be disposed of speedily, if necessary, by appointing special courts. The special courts should decide the cases within a period of six months".

Communist Party of India (CPI) national secretary D. Raja agrees that in principle no tainted person should be made a Minister. "But what about Jayalalithaa and Narendra Modi, who have been indicted by the Supreme Court in serious cases? Are they not tainted and are they not continuing in office as Chief Ministers? Is not the BJP defending them?" he asked.

Nilotpal Basu, CPI(M) MP, suggested that the party might not agree with the manner in which the Prime Minister exercised his prerogative in choosing his Ministers, but added that there was nothing illegal or unconstitutional about the induction of these Ministers into the Council of Ministers. The NDA's campaign questioning the exercise of the Prime Minister's prerogative only smacks of their frustration over the election results, he said. Had the BJP been serious about preventing tainted persons from becoming Ministers, it could have utilised the time when it was in power to introduce the necessary changes in the law, through consensus. But its motive appears to be to score political points by accusing its adversaries of sacrificing what it considers the "time-honoured conventions" of probity in public life.

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