MLAs in zenana

Print edition : March 17, 2017

INDIA’S hyperactive Supreme Court, oppressed by rising arrears, has time for burning issues such as the national anthem. But it has turned a Nelson’s eye to an outrage on the Constitution which warrants a suo motu notice. It must be ended, for it is now over 30 years since N.T. Rama Rao took his flock of seven Members of the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly on a protected picnic to Karnataka, courtesy Ramakrishna Hegde. Sasikala followed this hallowed precedent when she took her MLAs to a luxurious resort miles away from Chennai.

The reason was not to give the flock a treat by having them graze on rich pastures. It was to protect them from seduction, very much like possessive husbands did to their wives and mistresses in former times. Like them, the MLAs swear loyalty to the master. But the reality of forced incarceration is apparent to anyone who cares to see.

It is an issue of great constitutional importance, for it touches the very core of our democracy. First, why the retreat now, just when the political situation spurns MLA trading? I refrain from calling it horse-trading out of love for horses who, like dogs, are loyal to the master without any thought for a bribe.

Secondly, a legislator—whether a Member of Parliament or a State Legislative Assembly or even a municipal corporator—betrays his electors when he makes himself inaccessible to them. Thirdly, it is a gross breach of parliamentary privilege to keep an MP or an MLA incommunicado by denying his voters and the media free access to him by imposing curbs on visitors. Our legislators cry “breach of privilege” at the drop of a hat. No prizes are awarded to those who guess why they submit to this breach and to the humiliation. In such a situation of enforced incarceration, the man is not free to communicate with his voters, partymen, the media and the government. For all practical purposes he/she becomes non ess.

Is this not a matter in which the Supreme Court should intervene, hear the parties, even record their false excuses—and denounce it? The very timing of the location en masse and the nature of the restraints raise legitimate suspicions, which are is for the offenders to rebut.

Is there any—repeat any—other democracy in the entire wide world which has suffered such an obscenity? India has done so meekly for decades. The Supreme Court must not ignore it even though the event is over. The law provides for a period of calm between electioneering and voting and between the filing of a consent to divorce by the spouses and the final order. How free, pray, can a voter in the Assembly possibly be if the MLAs are shepherded from the protection of the retreat straight to the Assembly House to cast their vote as desired by the party boss—the very purpose of their fully paid holiday in the resort?

It is surely time that the Supreme Court took notice of this outrage which it has hitherto ignored for over three decades and pronounced it to be improper and illegal. The disclaimers of the holiday-makers themselves testify to the duress, which correspondents have noticed. Apart from being a criminal offence, it should be held to be vitiating the election in the Assembly. This touches the very basics of our constitutional government. It is more important than ordering citizens to stand when the national anthem is played in cinema theatres. It is an order devoid of legal or constitutional sanction. The court has no jurisdiction to make it; it is a nullity in law. On the other hand, a pronouncement against the legislators’ enforced holidays would not only be based on the jurisprudence of the parliamentary system but is a duty which the Constitution imposes on the Supreme Court of India.

A.G. Noorani

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