Will jailing bigwigs refurbish government’s image?

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS,

The earlier belief that there are two sets of laws – one for the poor and another for the rich – is slowly being eroded. The process started more than a decade ago when P.V. Narasimha Rao became the first person, who had been prime minister, to be sentenced to a three-year prison term in the year 2000 on the charge of bribing MPs of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) to vote for his government.

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But he did not have to spend any time behind bars because he died before the judiciary had decided on his appeal although a cell was prepared for him in Tihar Jail. JMM leader and former Jharkhand chief minister Shibu Soren did spend some time in Tihar in connection with a murder in which he was implicated. What these instances showed was that the arm of the law was finally becoming long enough to reach the very top.

Even then, the fact that some of the allegedly guilty politicians continue to believe they are above the law is evident from their rising numbers in state legislatures and even parliament. For instance, the number of MPs with a criminal background has gone up from 128 in 2004 to 162 in 2009.

However, never before have so many big guns been sent to jail at the same time, as the incarceration of former communications minister Andimuthu Raja, former Commonwealth Games chief Suresh Kalmadi and several senior corporate executives show.

As if to drive home the point that no one is above the law, another high-flying MP, Kanimozhi of the DMK, who is the daughter of party supremo and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, has been slapped with a chargesheet by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the 2G spectrum scam.

Karunanidhi’s second wife, Dayalu Ammal, however, has been spared the humiliation apparently because of her age, ill-health and lack of knowledge of any language other than Tamil although her exclusion has raised the usual doubts about the CBI’s professionalism.

Even then, the Manmohan Singh government can be said to have finally decided to crack the whip. If the government is no longer taking shelter behind some of the earlier explanations for inaction such as coalition dharma, the reason evidently is the realisation that such lame excuses convince no one. All that happens instead is that the government’s reputation nosedives and even the prime minister’s widely acknowledged personal integrity comes under attack.

The biggest sufferer, of course, has been the Congress party, which squandered the goodwill it earned after 2004 by virtually allowing Raja to run amok till the Supreme Court’s and the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) indictments left the prime minister with no option but to sack him.

It is too early to say to what extent the government and the Congress will be able to salvage their reputations by jailing some of the bigwigs since they are yet to be formally convicted. The reason for the continuing sceptism about the government’s intention is the belief that it has been forced to act against the suspects not because of any sense of moral outrage but because the judiciary and the CAG left it with no option.

The only way in which the government can refurbish its image is by taking the long-awaited step of insulating the bureaucracy, namely, the police and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), from political influence. It is a step which the Supreme Court asked the centre and the state governments to take in 2006, but the political class has shown no interest in the judicial diktat because it has long been used to manipulating the police and the CBI for partisan purposes.

Yet, if these institutions had functional autonomy, nearly all the present scandals which haunt the government – ministerial malfeasance, influence-peddling by MPs, the flawed allocation of residential apartments, the stashing of money abroad – could either have been nipped in the bud or remained well under control. But by preventing law-enforcement agencies from pursuing the wrongdoers, the government has undermined its own credibility to such an extent that even Home Minister P. Chidambaram has had to bemoan its ethical and governance “deficits”.

The fallout of the government’s reluctance to let the bureaucracy adhere to the law of the land without fear or favour has been that, first, the Supreme Court has appeared as a saviour and, secondly, civil society activists like Anna Hazare have flaunted their claims to be genuine patriots and redeemers. Neither development is beneficial in the long run because it tends to show up the present system as lopsided. Historically, dictators have utilised such disillusionment about democracy to grab power.

(30-04-2011-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])