Ever since Sonia Gandhi announced her abrupt resignation from Parliament and the National Advisory Council last week, journalists and political analysts have focused almost exclusively on the tactical aspects of her decision. Even BJP leaders have been forced to admit that through this second act of self-denial, Sonia has once more taken the wind out of their sails. Not even her most fervent supporters in the media have paid more than lip service to her own explanation of why she took this step — that it was the right thing to do.
The scepticism of the political analysts is understandable. If it was the right thing to do last Thursday, why was it not so a month ago, when the Congress launched a campaign against Jaya Bachchan on the grounds that she held an ‘office of profit’, or on March 17, when the president expelled her from the Rajya Sabha? Conversely, why did the government scurry to adjourn Parliament sine die, with the obvious intention of introducing an ordinance to define offices of profit, only when it realised that 30 or more Congress MPs, including Sonia, could be expelled on the same grounds?
Not being privy to what went on at 10, Janpath, one can only speculate on the reasons why Sonia did not take control of the brewing crisis sooner. In retrospect, it is clear that the government should have convened an all-party meeting to discuss the definition of offices of profit the moment it received the Election Commission’s opinion that Jaya Bachchan had violated the relevant provisions of the Constitution. It knew perfectly well that many other MPs and MLAs held similar offices, and that this had become possible because the term ‘office of profit’ had never been defined. Its failure to do so has opened it, and the Congress in particular, to the charge that it was seeking to embarrass Mulayam Singh Yadav in the petty battle of wits that has been going on in UP ever since the Congress came to power in Delhi.
But almost no one has acknowledged that it is better to do ‘the right thing’ late than not to do it at all. And literally no one has conceded that it requires far more courage to do it late than to do it on time, or not at all. For doing it late is an implicit admission that one had earlier made a mistake. And in today’s media-driven politics, that is the one thing that political leaders cannot afford to do. Having failed to act on, or before, March 17, Sonia could have let the government proceed with its original plan to pass an ordinance. The Left would no doubt have protested strenuously, but it would most certainly not have brought the government down on this issue. She chose not to do so. It is in this — her capacity to tacitly admit her mistake and to rectify it — that her courage lies.
But what does the analysts’ and the media’s preoccupation with tactics and political outcomes reveal? What does their casual dismissal of the moral dimension of what Sonia did tell us about the state of our polity? It tells us that somewhere, on the road we have travelled during the last five decades, we have lost our way. We seem to have forgotten that in the long run, no State can retain its legitimacy if it does not strive constantly to maintain a just and moral social and economic order.
By resigning, Sonia prevented her government from amending the law in a morally dubious way to benefit her personally. This was a small but important assertion of the equality of all citizens before the law and the sanctity of the democratic process. The fact that these aspects of her decision have received scant attention in the media shows how it and the establishment have drifted into accepting, and even becoming a part of, an immoral political order.
A far more telling indication of this is the failure of the media and its analysts to ask precisely what kind of MPs are affected by the Election Commission’s ruling. The answer is that apart from a few overtly political exceptions, they are people who enjoy the respect of the public and are, therefore, asked to head trusts, foundations and other organisations that need the support of the public to do their work.
Far from profiting from their offices, they lend credibility to the organisations they belong to. In sharp contrast, around a fifth of the present members of the Lok Sabha and twice that proportion of MLAs have serious criminal charges pending against them. Not one of these people is affected by the ruling. Thus if it is allowed to stand, it will tilt the scales sharply towards the criminal elements that have gained a stranglehold on the Indian State.
Indian democracy received its first push in this direction when Indira Gandhi banned company donations to political parties in 1970, but did not create an alternative system for funding the electoral and political system. In the decades that followed, the growing need for funds forced parties first to seek the help of black money and ‘muscle power’, and then to allow the purveyors to use their parties to enter politics directly. A strict definition of offices of profit now could complete the job that was begun in 1970.
In the coming days, both the government and the political parties will have to struggle with finding a definition that does not punish the best elements in our politics and thereby reward the worst. Trying to do this exhaustively, on a position by position basis, will prove a Herculean task and will almost certainly lead to still more controversy in the future. But the task will become easier if we examine the evolution of democracy and identify the abuses that the interdiction was intended to prevent.
The struggle to prevent the executive from influencing the legislature by offering jobs to legislators can be traced back to the reign of Queen Anne in England at the end of the 17th century. Its main purpose was to compel the sovereign to choose her advisors (who later evolved into the cabinet) from the largest political party in Parliament and not at her pleasure, as she and her predecessors had done. The struggle was to continue for a hundred years and came to a head during the reign of George III. But for much of this time the sovereign was legally able to appoint a number of servants of the crown from among the members of Parliament and thereby get it to do his or her bidding.
This struggle ended in the institutionalisation of cabinet government, in which the powers of the legislature and the executive are fused in that body. That is the system that India adopted in 1950. In the ensuing decades, governments have used and abused this power with impunity. Kalyan Singh in UP holds the record with a ministry of 100, but in Haryana and the smaller states, it has been a standard practice to ensure stability by appointing virtually all the members of the ruling party to one ministerial post or the other. Despite attempts to limit cabinet size, this situation is not likely to change radically in the future.
The practice of enticing defections by offering ministerial posts has also become routine. The anti-defection law, which was intended to stop this, has only made defection more difficult and securing defections more expensive.
So the original purpose of preventing MPs and MLAs for holding offices of profit has been largely defeated. Today it is far more important to prevent MPs from becoming beholden to powerful interest groups. But their constant need for funds with which to fight elections and reward their followers has already made them slaves of these interests. Thus, perhaps all that the government and parties should ensure is that MPs do not draw salaries and other remuneration from any source other than their parliamentary emoluments.