Forty Hours When the Fate of the Republic Hung in Balance

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In mid-August, the polity had a narrow escape. That traumatic experience has helped restore an equilibrium of sorts. The momentum in favour of fairness should not be allowed to slow down.

By  Harish Khare *

They say all’s well that ends well, but it will be a case of inexcusable complacency to forget so soon those 40 hours of despondency last week in Bangalore and beyond. For nearly two whole days – from the time governor Vajubhai Vala granted B.S. Yeddyurappa 15 days to prove his majority till the time Friday morning when the Supreme Court modified that order and directed a Saturday evening floor test – the polity and its citizens were frozen in disbelief and despair.

For those 40 hours, all those who cling to a belief in the innate fairness of the working of the constitutional arrangements in our polity were forced to take note of the very brazenness of political thuggery sought to be put into play in Bangalore. Suddenly, law-abiding citizens were left wondering whether there was any escape from the diseased ambitions of flawed men who had come to power at the Centre. Was yet another round of raw political dadagiri about to receive judicial blessings?

Admittedly, the Supreme Court needs to be applauded – and applauded lustily – for eventually upholding the fundamental principle of political fairness.

As a nation, we had collectively found ourselves face to face with a political version of the Steve Smith syndrome. Our clean and honest rulers looked very much like the Aussies who indisputably constituted a bunch of competent cricketers, who played an aggressive game and had an extremely intelligent leader as captain, but who also were just as determinedly averse to losing and hell bent on winning – fairly, and if necessary, by foul means too. In retrospect, Vala needs to be thanked for his blatant act of ‘mandate tampering’.

Yet it was depressing to contemplate during those 40 hours that all the honourable men and women entrusted with grave matters of national security, national honour, national defence, national economy, were engaged in supervising dishonest acts by dishonourable operatives. It was indeed a profane thought to try to understand how everyone – from the most powerful constitutional functionary to joint director level officials – was being pressed into service to procure a working majority for Yeddyurappa.

What aggravated our sense of unease was that the stewards of “new India” were flirting with illegalities; that our best and brightest minds were being asked to tap into their unsavoury connections in Karnataka to exploit vulnerabilities among the Congress/Janata Dal (Secular) legislators.

The very ministers who used to strut around as promoters of a new political morality were now reduced to flinging the Congress party’s past misdemeanours in our faces to justify an act of political thuggery.

It is in this context that the consequences of the Yeddyurappa flop show need to be understood: not only has the mood in the opposition camp changed, but a sense of equilibrium stands restored, though invisibly, and its down-stream impact is likely to be felt within the executive branch.

It is not unrealistic to hope that the next time a Central Bureau of Investigation or Enforcement Directorate functionary is asked to misuse his authority for a partisan end, the officer will have the gumption to decline, or at least delay compliance with illegality. After the Supreme Court’s intervention in favour of fair play, the officers who staff India’s investigation agencies will be inclined to remember that they have a backbone. Senior bureaucrats across the land have acquiesced as baronial prerogatives have been appropriated; consequently, hundreds and thousands of illegalities and instances of misuse of power for partisan purposes have been set in motion.

All this amounted to a grand theft of national authority for unconstitutional ends, but it was possible only because the polity’s equilibrium had shifted.

Equilibrium is a sense of assurance, felt and perceived, that by some mysterious processes we will end up doing the right thing – a confidence that at the end of the day our institutional overseers will make a wise choice and that collectively we would turn our back on political dishonesty. Equilibrium is premised on the faith that no single source of authority will be allowed to act arbitrarily and capriciously, and, if necessary, the system will produce the requisite correction to check the overreach.

Equilibrium ensures moderation and reasonableness in our polity. Citizens have a sense of confidence that whenever waywardness and hot-headedness make their unpleasant presence felt, the rest of the system will not feel intimidated and that others will do their dharma, summon the necessary clarity and conviction to slow down and reverse deviations from the constitution.

The restoration of equilibrium will be felt most in the functioning of all our institutions. To begin with, it is possible to suggest that the Supreme Court collegium will stiffen its resolve in insisting that the government honours its selection of Justice K..M. Joseph a judge of the apex court; and, it is a fair assumption that Chief Justice  Dipak Misra will, as per practice, recommend Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s name as his successor.

A similar feeling of resistance can be expected to descend on the Nirvachan Sadan. The election commissioners have as sacred a duty – and a constitutional obligation – as do the Supreme Court judges, individually and collectively, to insist on basic rules of the game. The former chief election commissioners have done well to remind the present incumbentsat Nirvachan Sadan that they may have been appointed by a political authority but they are not enjoined to perform as political operatives. The citizens’ faith in the institutional integrity of the Election Commission must never be allowed to be diluted.

The rebuff to authorised thuggery in Bangalore and the restoration of equilibrium at the national level will prove consequential all over the republic. Yet it would be downright foolish for anyone to think that just because it failed in its putsch in Karnataka, the Amit Shah crowd will pack up and retire to some ashram. There will be a new battle, for sure, but this time on a somewhat more level playing field. It is therefore incumbent upon the non-BJP political forces and leaders to prove that they deserved this break – that their unity is not anchored in simple transactional baseness, and that they are capable of producing meaningful stability. Only then can they hope to mount a challenge in 2019.

* Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi. He was, until recently, editor-in-chief of The Tribune.

This article was originally published on May 22, 2018 in The Wire.

JULY 2018

Vol. 12 - No. 12


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