The arrest of former finance minister P Chidambaram has thrown many critics of the current administration into a quandary.
On the one hand, they know that there may be some truth to the allegations of corruption made by the investigating agencies. They would, therefore, like nothing better than for corrupt politicians to be probed just like ordinary citizens and be made to feel the full force of the law.
However, they also know that investigations and probes are primarily targeted at opposition politicians, while corrupt politicians within the ruling front continue to feel protected. In that sense, the investigation and prosecution of P Chidambaram can be seen as unjust — a selective enforcement of law.
So, what stand should a law-abiding, progressive ‘liberal’ take in this case?
HONOR AMONG THIEVES
India’s political set-up, much like its media set-up, works on consensus: We both live in glass houses, so don’t throw stones at my house, and I will extend you the same courtesy.
This rule, if unwritten, is well respected and well observed in Lutyen’s Delhi.
In the media sector, for example, newspapers for long observed a policy of not writing about (‘for’ or ‘against’) a rival newspaper. Even if one got a nice scoop about a rival newspaper company, you simply didn’t publish it. “We don’t write about other newspapers”, new reporters would be told.
A similar, unseen consensus existed among politicians, Delhi politicians to be specific.
You can make any kind of wild allegations against your rival in TV debates, you can even set your sleuths to uncover their scams and corruption, but never really prosecute them.
The reason for this hands-off approach was clear: You could find yourself on the other side of the aisle after a couple of years, depending on the goodwill of your rivals to stay out of jail. Being keenly aware of the coffins in one’s own cupboard made one respect those in your rivals’.
So, ever since the end of the Indira era, Delhi politicians have more or less kept off each others’ toes, no matter how aggressively they may attack each other in public.
The only cases where central government politicians have been brought to book were those in which outsiders, or the media, dug up most of the dirt and placed it in front of a court — Tehelka’s Operation West End and the 2G scam are cases in point.
Yet, even here, politicians in power often ensure that enforcement agencies left sufficient slack in the investigation to help their rivals slip through, knowing fully well that neither the media nor the public had the stamina or the appetite to follow every argument at every hearing and every trial.
So, for all the hullabaloo caused by the high-profile arrests and stinging observations from the courts, the end result would often be a dismissal of the case due to lack of evidence.
“There is no evidence on the record produced before the court indicating any criminality in the acts allegedly committed by the accused persons…I have absolutely no hesitation in holding that the prosecution has miserably failed to prove any charge against any of the accused, made in its well choreographed charge-sheet,” was how a judge termed the performance of the central investigating agency in a recent, high-profile case.
BREAKDOWN IN CONSENSUS?
Chidambaram’s case is different from all this in that a central government politician is being prosecuted primarily on the initiative of the government in power, rather than by an activist lawyer or the media.
This could denote a crack in the armour of immunity enjoyed by Delhi-based politicians for decades.
Such a breakdown in a long-held consensus could be for two reasons.
First, Amit Shah and Narendra Modi are not Delhi politicians and never enjoyed the ‘immunity’ extended by Delhi politicians to each other.
On the contrary, both Shah and Modi have been at the receiving ends of intense scrutiny and investigations by Delhi-based agencies and pro-government media.
As such, they don’t feel obligated to play by the same rules.
The second contributing factor could be their confidence that they would always be in power – at least for the foreseeable future. If there’s no risk that Congress would come pack to power and be in a position to probe them, they could afford to bury the consensus.
SHOULD YOU SUPPORT IT?
This brings us back to the question – should a law-abiding, but fair-minded citizen support what the central government is doing now?
Despite misgivings related to selective enforcement, the answer, perhaps, is still a yes.
The breakdown of the ‘corrupt consensus’ is a necessary, if not an adequate, condition to introduce the fear of the law among our ‘national politicians’.
State-level politicians have always had this fear, as such consensus rarely exists at the state level, but prosecution at the national level have always been somewhat shambolic.
While it may seem unfair that only opposition politicians are feeling the sting of the law, the breakdown of consensus will ensure that the long-held feeling of immunity among national level politicians is compromised, and could lead to greater accountability and probity in politicians.
Moreover, given the rotating nature of power, all politicians will have to learn to respect the law, if not today, then tomorrow.