Thursday, August 16, 2007

Left’s defining moment (as appeared in The New Indian Express, August 17 2007)

The ongoing exchanges between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the CPM leaders on the Indo-US nuclear deal have been carried out from within the confines of the Prime Minister’s Office. A more ideal place would have been 10 Janpath. The two sides could have agreed, for a settlement of the dispute, through arbitration. Sonia Gandhi, after all, has shown her ability to arbitrate disputes between individuals and parties with elan in the past. For some reason, the Left leaders desisted from taking this course right from the start and agreed to a drawing room confabulation only at a later stage.It is indeed a bright spark for those who care for democracy to celebrate the fact that the leaders decided to debate their differences in the public domain. Now that the two sides - the Congress and the Left - have stated their respective positions, it is clear that the issue is now at a point of no return. While the Left finds the nuclear deal ‘unacceptable’, Sonia Gandhi has gone on record endorsing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s position that there is no way that the deal will be re-negotiated.Logically, this leaves only one option open. And that is to raise the issue in Parliament and raise it in a manner that the debate is not merely meant to record the respective positions and instead in a manner that the conflicting positions are voted upon. This has become important because the point at issue is not a mere difference of perception within a political coalition or between the ruling and the opposition benches.The left believes that the Indo-US deal has clauses that bind India’s sovereign rights and also that of India’s attitude towards another country (Iran). This would enforce far-reaching changes and restrictions insofar as India’s foreign policy, the nation’s energy generation capabilities and its right to conduct tests in the realm of developing nuclear weapons. But there is nothing in the Constitution that binds the Government of the day to seek Parliament’s approval, before entering into a treaty with another country. There is something incongruous about this.The Constitution, as it is now, makes it imperative for the Union Government to obtain Parliament’s approval of the dismissal of a State Government and dissolving a State Assembly. This was not necessary until 1993. But the Supreme Court judgment in the S R Bommai case made this difference. And it is strange that Parliamentary approval is not taken in the case of a deal with another country even if it binds the nation and successive governments to the whims of the rulers of that country. This incongruity will have to be addressed. That is, however, the imperative for the future. In the immediate context, we have Rule 184 of the Lok Sabha Rules and Procedure. Otherwise known as Adjournment Motion, it is possible for the opposition (as well as parties that support the Government from outside) to insist that the House postpone all its regular business until something more immediate and of concern to the nation is resolved.Now, even if the Left parties are silent on this, the BJP has already made it known that it will demand a discussion on the Indo-US deal under this rule. The significance of any discussion under this rule is that the motion taken up for discussion under Rule 184 is put to vote. And in that sense, it is as useful as a motion of no-confidence. There is, however, a small catch. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha has the right to reject the notice for a motion under 184. In older times when the Speaker happened to be from the ruling party, the fate of such a demand could have been foreseen. Somnath Chatterjee will now have to decide on admitting such a motion. It remains to be seen as to which way he does that. Chatterjee had been in the CPM for several years and it will be fair to expect that he sees the issue in the same way as Prakash Karat does.While that remains to be seen, in the event an adjournment motion is admitted and the Left parties decide to support the motion (along with the parties in the NDA and the UNPA), the Government will be reduced to a minority. The combined strength of the UPA without the Left will be somewhere around 236 votes in the House of 544. In other words, it is possible for the Left to force Manmohan Singh to eat his words and re-negotiate. And in the event he refuses to do that, the Left could even force Sonia Gandhi (notwithstanding the categorical endorsement she did of the deal) to ask Manmohan Singh to go and ‘‘elect’’ someone else from her stable as Prime Minister and make it clear that their support will be conditional on an assurance that the Indo-US deal is re-negotiated.The moot question is whether the Left is prepared to push things that far. There is, after all, the possibility, remote as it may sound, that Sonia Gandhi stands resolutely for the deal as it is. And in that event, the Government suffers censure in the Lok Sabha and this leads to a mid-term election. The Left, after all, will not support an NDA-led Government and the UNPA does not have the numbers to form a non-Congress, non-BJP Government. In other words, fresh election is the only option.Forcing a mid-term election is not a bad thing to do if Karat and his comrades are convinced that the nation’s sovereignty is at stake because of the Indo-US deal. This is certainly a worthier cause than ensuring a stable government that may profess to be secular and democratic. Yet, there is very little indication in the past few days that the Left is serious about this option. It is more likely that the Left party MPs rave and rant against the Prime Minister and the Government in Parliament and when the Prime Minister completes his reply, Basudev Acharya will likely storm out of the Lok Sabha with his party-men in tow! That will ensure the defeat of an adjournment motion even if the NDA and the UNPA vote against the Government. A motion under rule 184 will be carried through only if a simple majority of those present in the House vote for it. A walkout by the Left parties will ensure that the Government is not censured. And it will take a while before someone from Karat’s stable laments about all this. India, by then, will be bound by the deal and the Left will be held guilty of having failed to scuttle it even when it was possible for them to have done it.

Friday, August 03, 2007

On Democracy and Justice... the Bombay Blasts vedict...
(This was published in the Economic Times on Saturday, August 4, 2007)

There was considerable excitement in the media this week and the cause for that was the pronouncements by two Special Courts; the pronouncement by the TADA Court in Mumbai (that tried the accused in the March 1993 blasts) sentencing Sanjay Dutt to six years rigorous imprisonment and the acquittal of Abdul Nasser Madhani by the Fast Track court in Coimbatore (that tried the accused in the February 1998 blasts) were met with reactions that were expected.

In both cases, the reactions were mixed. Sanjay Dutt drew sympathy from a section and there were others who felt that the law has taken its course. In case of Madhani too, the media’s concern was whether the lower court’s verdict would help the CPI(M) and the DMK (for both the parties were seen wanting his release from jail), the BJP hastened to demand an appeal against the acquittal.

Well. There is cause for appeal in both the cases and it is likely that the battle for ``justice’’ in both the cases will be taken up to the Supreme Court very soon. It is also likely that the apex court deals with the issue at a different plane and alters the course. The point is that while the Special Court or the Fast Track Court deals with cases only on the basis of the text of the law and refuses (for all the right reasons) to get into the spirit of the law, the apex court is meant to go beyond the text and interpret the law and its application.

In other words, it is in the scheme of things for the higher judiciary to delve beyond the facts of the case and place the issue in perspective. This happened in the past too. Recall the Special Court verdict in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case; the Fast Track Court in Chennai had sentenced as many as 26 accused in the case for death. But the apex court altered the course and only 4 out of the 26 were sentenced to death and the others were pronounced guilty of offences that warranted milder sentences.

Be that as it may. The issue now is not about the intensity of the crime and the sentence thereof. This is for the higher courts to determine and it is prudent that it is left to the learned judges at that level. There is, however, a larger dimension to the two cases that excited the media and to some extent the polity this week. And that is about the cause of justice and the future of Democratic India and its secular polity.

It is a fact that the blasts in Mumbai and in Coimbatore were not isolated events. In both these cases, there was large-scale violence against members belonging to the Muslim community. It is also a fact that the police, whose job is to ensure the safety and the security of the citizens and deal with those who infringe upon the right to life of the citizens, not merely failed to do that but were also found to have participated in the violence, actively in some cases and as passive witnesses in many, when the violence was carried out.

In Coimbatore, for instance, 18 men, all Muslims, were killed in the two days on November 30 and December 1, 1997. It is also a fact that the killings, in some cases, took place inside premises of the Government Hospital in Coimbatore. In other words, some of those injured who managed to reach the hospital were allowed to be killed even when the hospital premises was swarming with policemen during that time. The names of police officers on duty are not official secrets in any sense of the term. But nothing has been done, in all these years, to even hold an enquiry into their acts.

The Mumbai blasts case is more serious. Unlike in the case of the violence in Coimbatore, a Commission of Enquiry under a sitting judge of the Mumbai Hight Court was instituted on January 25, 1993, within weeks after the pogrom. Justice B.N.Srikrishna, took up is job with all seriousness and went about collating evidence and concluded that the proportion of Muslims among those killed in the violence that rocked Mumbai was too high and that this indeed was one of the dangerous messages that cannot be glossed over by all those who cared for Democratic India.

And apart from naming Bal Thackeray and his aides in the Shiv Sena and the effete political leadership symbolized by Sudhakarrao Naik and the partisan political schemes of Sharad Pawar (then Union Minister for Defence) as factors that contributed immensely to this attack on Democratic India, Justice Srikrishna, in his report, had listed out the names of several police officers in the various police stations who had not only failed in their duty but had actively connived with the rioters against the Muslims. These names are contained in Section 30 of Chapter Five of the report. And Justice Srikrishna’s intention behind putting out the list was in order to ensure that such onslaughts on Democratic India is not allowed to repeat itself.

Among the terms of reference for the Commission was that it recommend ``measures, long and short term, required to be taken by the administration to avoid recurrence of such incidents’’. And chapter 5 of the Report where the Commission recommended action against the police officers remains unattended to this day. Nor has the State Government, despite being headed by the Congress-NCP coalition since 2000, bothered to initiate prosecution of those behind the December 1992-January 1993 violence that left 900 people dead (575 of them were Muslims) till date.

Well, the argument that the Mumbai blasts cannot be seen in isolation was also raised by Justice Srikrishna in this report. The Commission’s terms of reference were expanded on May 24, 1995 to include the March 1993 blasts. And Justice Srikrishna made it clear: and he relies on the report placed by Mahesh Narain Singh, who headed the Investigation team on the blasts: ``that the serial blasts were a reaction to the totality of events at Ayodhya and Bombay in December 1992 and January 1993.’’

It is baffling, to say the least, that the Vilasrao Deshmukh Government in Maharashtra has done nothing to prosecute those behind the killings and still fancies itself as secular!