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All together now!

I helped a classmate with the drawing of a plant cell once. But it turned out that there was a rule against cheating, and no matter how noble I felt helping out a friend, both of us faced the grim consequence of conducting an illegal act. Indrajit Hazra reports.

columns Updated: Sep 28, 2013 23:35 IST
Indrajit Hazra

I got a big, fat zero in a school biology exam once. I helped a classmate with the drawing of a plant cell, being especially proficient in the depiction of golgi bodies.

But it turned out that there was a rule against cheating, and no matter how noble I felt helping out a friend, both of us faced the grim consequence of conducting an illegal act.

Now, if I had been in politics then, I suspect things would have been markedly different. First, I would have announced that a charge of cheating against me was actually a conspiracy by some other competing students trying to drag my marks in that term down.

This appeal would have resulted in the focus shifting from the real issue - us engaged in cheating - to the cunning strategies used by diabolical teenagers to put fellow students down.

Added to this, the very fact that I had helped a classmate who was from a minority community (nope, not Muslim!) would have certainly made it hard for the school authorities to take any action against us.

But school life is far more severe than political life in this country. To protect honest politicians from political conspiracies, the whole bushel must be protected, rotten apples and all.

When on July 10, the Supreme Court ruled that any member of Parliament or legislative assembly convicted of an offence punishable by more than two years in jail would be immediately disqualified from the office he holds, the bogeyman of trumped-up charges against poor politicians were immediately invoked by, um, politicians.

Based on the existing Representation of the People Act, 1961, such a person would also be barred from contesting elections from the date of conviction until six years after his release. Over the years, that law has been made to sound downright anti-democratic.

What those appalled by the Supreme Court ruling were saying was that MPs and MLAs would suddenly be exposed to dire 'competitive' forces that would file false cases against all politicians and jeopardise and stall the very functioning of Indian politics. Their argument: to ensure that a bent copper didn't stop your car to demand a bribe, one should do away with traffic laws.

So the central government, if memory serves me right, went into an overdrive to push for an ordinance to overturn the Supreme Court ruling. This executive act, invoking as always 'judicial overreach', sought to continue to cover MPs and MLAs with a prophylactic latex sheath so that it could still freely conduct intercourse with the Indian public without getting bogged down with responsibilities or unintended consequences.

The representatives of the people, went the logic of the UPA Cabinet ministers earlier last week, couldn't afford to be bogged down by popular notions of the law. Thankfully, later last week, the same lot flipped and followed the Pied Piper of Congress when the flautist considered by the party to be far more important than the Congress prime minister publicly opposed the ordinance and effectively spelt its demise.

To be fair, not everyone within the government had been comfortable with the proposed ordinance. Minister of State Milind Deora was one who publicly stated last week on Twitter that "legalities aside allowing convicted MPs/MLAs 2 retain seats in the midst of an appeal can endanger already eroding public faith in democracy". But hard-nosed politicians such as finance minister P Chidambaram and law minister Kapil Sibal kept the ordinance flag flying.

The BJP, whether after a change of heart or not, had also decided to oppose the ordinance. Perhaps, with a BS Yeddyurappa waiting to be reinducted into the party, the BJP's opposition was more aligned to oppositional politics rather than to a demand to refabricate Indian realpolitik.

But it didn't matter. To pass the ordinance would have been a slap on the Indian public, a slap that would have accompanied the homily about it being for the nation's good.

There has been little shame and few derailments of professional careers among Indian politicians going to jail. Part of this is because of a tradition of making jailed politicians a worthy successor to pre-1947 freedom fighters and Emergency-era anti-Congress leaders who 'filled prisons'.

Part of this is also because for far too many politicians, protection from the law is the very reason why they joined politics in the first place.

If Manmohan and his honest hombres had earlier thought it fit to push through this ordinance because of 'coalition compulsions', I'll bet my last golgi body that this won't be the last time we'll see the 'turbaned cop-dimpled cop' routine.

That's the only explanation for Rahul Gandhi not quietly telling the PM, "Boss, screw that ordinance", instead of turning it into a civil disobedience movement. The effect, after all, would have been the same - without the PM left holding the can.

Perhaps, this is a great time to check what the government thinks of bringing political parties under the RTI. And then to check with the other guy.