The law is open to so many interpretations that it is understandable when cynics deem it ‘an ass’. But the latest controversy regarding ‘tainted’ MPs being permitted to become ministers goes slightly deeper than determining what is legal and what is not. In fact, it revolves around the issue of whether there is a law in the first place that obstructs MPs charged of serious offences from becoming ministers. The Centre, responding to a PIL, has played it according to the rule book. Solicitor General GE Vahanvati has argued that there is no ‘convention’ — an unstated rule in parliamentary practice — that can force a tainted minister to resign. He is perfectly correct, and yet the rest of us are keenly aware of what is wrong: the moral compass of contemporary politics.
Conventions such as the practice of inviting the leader of the majority party to form a government or the dissolution of Parliament or the convention of the President never opposing the government’s policies are not written in the constitutional stone of the law. Yet, these ‘unwritten rules’ have become standard practice after they have been politically agreed upon. In the case of MPs charged with or indicted for wrongdoings, their entry into Parliament or otherwise has not been politically agreed upon. Thus, the very fact that this matter has entered the arena of the court — rather than being tested according to the iron rule of political morality — tells a tale of comparing apples with oranges. While the Centre’s defence can be viewed as ‘obfuscation’ by using technicalities, the truth is that it is a matter for political debate, rather than for judicial scrutiny.
Political parties have taken recourse to the bad old ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ for far too long. It is unfortunate that ‘constitutionally sanctioned’ alibis and legal loopholes are presented to excuse political immorality. Chargesheeted ministers, when they do deem to step down, do so under political duress, not because of a “call of conscience” or out of legal necessity. What is the need of the hour is to inculcate a political atmosphere — not necessarily for idealistic purposes alone — that would greatly increase the ‘political compulsions’ of a tainted minister to quit, rather than see what the rule books have to say. And interestingly, in a parliamentary democracy like India’s, the prospect of creating such compulsions lies with the people, not with the courts.