In this monsoon of political turbulence, when should a minister resign from public office? A few years ago, I posed the question to former railway minister Lalu Prasad in a TV debate. There had been a terrible rail accident and it was suggested that Lalu follow the example of a distinguished predecessor Lal Bahadur Shastri and step down as rail minister. Lalu, never at a loss for words, shot back: “People have elected us to take responsibility as ministers, not to run away from it!” Sure enough, Lalu stuck to the chair.
In hindsight, Shastri’s resignation as railway minister in 1956 after an accident was an extreme step, but it was, as Pandit Nehru reminded Parliament, a tribute to a “man of the highest integrity”. That, of course, was a different age: a period when the notion of ‘integrity’ had genuine meaning, and was not the self-righteous proclamation it’s been reduced to today.
It was also a time when just the mere whiff of a scandal was considered enough for a minister to resign. When TT Krishnamachari resigned as finance minister in 1957 over the alleged sale of fraudulent shares to LIC, there was no direct evidence to implicate him, but the fact that the scam had taken place under his ministerial supervision was enough for him to put in his papers. Contrast that with a Shibu Soren who returned to the Union cabinet within six months of an arrest warrant being issued against him in a murder case the moment he had secured bail. Or a J Jayalalithaa who is back as Tamil Nadu CM even though she is a prime accused and facing trial in a corruption case. Or a Mayawati who is facing a serious disproportionate assets case in the Supreme Court but is still UP cm.
The new political morality suggests that even prima facie evidence is not enough, a minister will only resign when he or she is convicted by a court of law. Since the process of prosecution and conviction is long and cumbersome, most politicians continue in their ministerial office even while the case drags on for years in courts. Which is also why most of them get away by simply saying, ‘the law will take its course’.
It is this growing public frustration with a tardy judicial process that has created the present environment in which a carnivorous media is playing, to quote a rather forlorn PM, “accuser, prosecutor and judge”. The classic jurisprudential principle in which an accused was presumed to be innocent till proven guilty has been turned on its head. You are now guilty till you can prove your innocence. A TV studio is now a cacophonous courtroom, and the news anchor (this columnist included) is often the ultimate judge. The result is that resignations can be forced if a sufficient amount of surround sound is created over a ‘scam’.
The battle, in that sense, is now being fought in the peoples’ court where perception matters more than legal niceties, a perception magnified by the ‘Sab neta chor hai’ slogan. In normal times, an A Raja would not have had to step down on the basis of a Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) report. After all, CAG reports often ‘indict’ ministers and officials. But in the case of Raja, the report only confirmed the widespread suspicion of a deliberate misuse of the telecom ministry for personal benefit. Similarly, former Commonwealth Games chief Suresh Kalmadi was deemed guilty even before a chargesheet in the case because there was a general ‘perception’ that he had manipulated Games contracts. By contrast, Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit stays on in office even after the Shunglu panel probing the Commonwealth Games scam indicted her government because she is ‘perceived’ to be an honest, hard working chief minister.
The ‘perception’ factor in public life is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be a rough check of the system, forcing normally brazen politicians to resign under the sheer weight of public opinion. A Yeddyurappa may seek a Nobel prize for fighting illegal mining, but once a crusading lokayukta has charged him with corruption, he loses credibility. An Ashok Chavan could argue that he was forced to quit as Maharashtra CM over the Adarsh housing scam even before an FIR could be filed in the case, but the emotional quotient attached to Kargil war widows made him a political liability.
On the other hand, an uncontrolled war of words can lead to instant character assassination where lines get blurred between fact and allegation, truth and hype. Take the case of former Union minister Shashi Tharoor. There was no legal charge against him, and yet, he was summarily removed on grounds of ‘perceived’ impropriety. That he had no real political base perhaps made him an even softer target. Contrast his situation with that of a Vilasrao Deshmukh who remains a Cabinet minister even after having strictures passed against him in the Supreme Court. A Tharoor was ‘dispensable’, a Deshmukh is a political heavyweight.
Which brings us back to our original question: when should a minister resign? Systemic credibility demands that the bar for someone in public life must be legally and morally much higher than that of a private citizen. An ordinary citizen will never be subject to the microscopic examination that those in power will be confronted with. The ‘guilty till proven innocent’ mantra is a hazard that the power elite will have to live with. Yes, we must guard against becoming a lynch mob that delivers verdicts without offering a fair hearing. But let’s not allow the lynch mob argument to prevent us from enforcing more rigorous standards of accountability.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 Network
The views expressed by the author are personal