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Amarinder Singh's Terminator Act

By Inder Malhotra

Never before has any Chief Minister in this country acted so outrageously as has Amarinder Singh in Punjab by enacting — suddenly and somewhat surreptitiously — a law "terminating" all water-sharing agreements entered into by the State over the years. There is conspicuous consensus that this deplorable law defies the Supreme Court's clear directives, strikes at the very heart of federalism and undermines democratic functioning and rule of law.

The Haryana Chief Minister, Om Prakash Chautala, one of those most aggrieved by the new Punjab enactment, is right in saying that by his reckless act, Captain Amarinder Singh could be promoting the country's "division."

Remarkably, a Congress leader of Haryana, Birinder Singh, who is both a member of the Congress Working Committee and the AICC's man in charge of the key State of Uttar Pradesh, agrees. The Captain, he says, is providing "leverage and encouragement to anti-national and separatist forces."

In view of this, the performance of both the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, and the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has been disturbingly disappointing, to say the least. At first, almost the entire media had reported that both Ms. Gandhi and Dr. Singh were "furious" with Amarinder Singh for having created an unacceptable situation without informing the party "high command" or the Union Government. Some seemingly plausible accounts of the meeting between Dr. Singh and Amarinder quoted the exact words reportedly used by the Prime Minister to reprimand the Chief Minister. These, coming from the usually mild-mannered and soft-spoken Dr. Singh, were noticeably harsh. But then, as usually happens, between words and deeds fell the proverbial shadow.

Far from being contrite and willing to undo the grievous wrong he has committed, the Chief Minister started patting himself on the back for being an "uncompromising champion of Punjab's rights." He had good reason to crow. For, all that the Union Government did — after all the sound and fury — was to pass the buck to the Supreme Court.This is nothing short of shirking of duty by both the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government and the Congress leadership headed by Ms. Sonia Gandhi. There are some in this country that blame an "over-active judiciary" for interfering in matters it should stay out of. But is not this inevitable if grave political problems that ought to be solved through the political process are habitually passed on to the higher judiciary to resolve?

The Congress' private explanation for the leadership's failure to come down heavily on Amarinder Singh is that the Akali Dal alone would have been the beneficiary of any strong action against the Chief Minister. In other words, the frayed excuse of "political compulsions" is being trotted out yet again. But should not the Congress leadership have pondered the consequences of the alarming precedent it has allowed the Punjab Chief Minster to set?

Sadly, the major Opposition parties, national or regional, have also been of no help. Still unhinged by their defeat in the elections that they never expected they are content to wallow in whatever problems and difficulties that embarrass the Congress and the Manmohan Singh Government. The conduct of the BJP, still functioning under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has been particularly appalling. Disregarding major national issues, it has been busy obstructing and paralysing Parliament on such momentous matters as the removal of Governors having strong links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the non-removal of Ministers it considers "tainted."

For his part, Amarinder Singh finds in the Centre's decision to refer the matter to the Supreme Court a convenient escape hatch. Many a legal luminary believes that the Supreme Court would throw out the Punjab law "in 15 minutes flat." This impression is strengthened because in its latest judgment in the protracted litigation between Punjab and Haryana before the eruption of the current crisis, the Supreme Court had held Punjab's position to be "an invitation to anarchy." For this reason, it had directed the Centre to take over the construction of the remaining part of the Sutlej-Yamuna canal that Punjab had evidently no desire to dig. No great intelligence is needed to perceive that the Captain's Terminator Act was meant to beat the deadline for the changeover. Could the defiance of the Supreme Court order be more brazen? And yet, ironically, the Supreme Court alone might enable him to get out of the corner he has painted himself into without loss of face.

No wonder he is making some conciliatory noises even behind the smokescreen of aggressive rhetoric. Some positive hints he has given in full-page advertisements in newspapers that he took out ostensibly to defend his indefensible act. Why does every errant Government resort to full-page ads at the taxpayers' expense a la "India Shining" is an intriguing question in itself.

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