Monday, September 12, 2011

What about breaching people's privilege? Dirty tricks experts blunder again.

Can the Government of India's dirty tricks department never get it right? It had committed serial blunders while handling the Anna Hazare phenomenon. The Government had been embarrassed all along the way. Finally after Parliament accepted Hazare's main demands, there was a feeling that wisdom would prevail.

But the plotters are at it again. As crudely as ever, they have initiated proceedings against the leading members of the Hazare team on one charge or another. Bhushan, Kejriwal and Bedi have been slapped with breach of parliamentary privilege. Kejriwal, a former Income Tax official, has been served with a notice on disputed arrears as well.

Even if the charges were all proper and bonafide, commonsense should have told the Government's intriguers that targetting all three at once was a mug's game. In this case, the charges themselves are quite obviously trumped up and will strike citizens as such. Instead of discrediting the activists, the dumb move will further discredit the Government.

If Kejriwal broke his service rules, why is action taken only now? If he “amassed crores” through his non-government organisation, why is legal action not taken against him, instead of leaving it to Congress's official loose cannon Digvijay Singh to make yet another allegation out of it. (This is the man who said Suresh Kalmadi was innocent). Clearly the dirtytrickwallahs are engaged in a harassment campaign, an exercise in vindictiveness, at a time when the Government should be trying to create trust, not confrontation. Hazare is right when he says that sending “wrong signals” now can well lead to unrest in the country.

The breach of privilege charge in particular is preposterous and counter-productive. MPs are criticised as a class not just by social activists but by people at large. Politicians are also attacked as a class. It is no use saying that all MPs and all politicians are not bad. Of course they are not. But the fact remains that the collective reputation of politicians and MPs today is at its lowest point since independence. They are seen by the people as a class and detested as a class.

Parliament must earn fame before it can be defamed. The recent Murdoch case of illegal phone hacking gave us an opportunity to see how the British Parliament earns its stature and respect. Members could speak without fear of being stopped by their opponents. Respect to the Chair was paramount. When the Speaker stood up, it was a signal for all members to sit down. Order prevailed at all times.

In our Parliament order is the rarest of rare occurrence. We recently saw Sushma Swaraj, perceived to be a responsible leader, declaring that her party would decide each day whether Parliament should be allowed to function or not. The Speaker's pleas for order are uproariously ignored. The well of the House sees more action than the benches. All this on top of the scandals, be it cash for votes or cash for questions. What privilege are we talking about?

This notion of “elected representatives” is a bit exaggerated these days. We are a country where Manmohan Singh cannot get elected, but Pappu Yadav can – repeatedly. Besides, this is an inopportune time to talk about elected representatives when some prominent ones are in jail. Former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda has been going from Tihar to Parliament House to serve the country. The ever-elected representative of Bellary's toiling masses, a man used to ignoring even court summonses, is suddenly behind bars.

Rather, this is an opportune time to talk about people's privileges. Every time MPs shout one another down, every time the House is adjourned because of unruly behaviour by members, Parliament is committing breach of privilege of citizens. Intolerance of citicism is itself a breach of democracy. What this misplaced brouhaha in the name of Parliament has proved is that the privilege issue is, as Aruna Roy put it, “fundamentally flawed”. Cleanse the system before talking about privilege.