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Wednesday, October 17, 2001

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One grand conspiracy

By Harish Khare

THE ENGLISH language does not provide us with a word that would do for ``murder of republican virtues''. Nor does the Constitution of India envisage a ``crime'' where the rule of law is suborned by those very functionaries who are supposed to protect and promote it. Perhaps a new term, ``republicide'' can be coined to convey the subversion from above of institutional procedures and pretences that sustain republican virtues and values. That precisely was the crime committed by Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee when he insisted, against wise advice and advance warning, on reinducting Mr. George Fernandes as the Defence Minister. If a First Information Report (FIR) was to be filed, and if the logic and rationale of that wonderful crusader, Mr. U.N. Biswas of fodder scam fame, was to be rigorously invoked, then the ``conspiracy'' and the conspirators - some known, some unknown - of October 15, 2001, could be easily identified.

The ``conspiracy'' part is simple. On March 16, 2001, the Prime Minister of India, a gentleman named Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, (currently resident of 7, Race Course Road, New Delhi) told the nation that he was instituting an inquiry, under the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, to probe the allegations in the Tehelka expose. Till such time the probe was completed, his Defence Minister would step down. The country saluted Mr. Vajpayee for, at least, keeping up the pretence of some morality and probity in public life. Now, on October 15, the same Prime Minister enlisted the same ``tainted'' man as his Defence Minister, without waiting for the probe to be over. The worst part of the conspiracy is that the Prime Minister has suo motu declared that the inquiry commission has not found anything against Mr. Fernandes.

The ``conspirators'' are many. First, there is Mr. Lal Krishna Advani. On October 13, this gentleman was seen addressing a BJP youth convention at Agra. During his speech the said Mr. Advani reiterated his party's commitment to the concept of ``su-raj'' (good governance, a promise that carries with it a commitment to a modicum of public morality). Two days later, on October 15, the same gentleman was spotted occupying the front row at Rashtrapati Bhavan, applauding Mr. Fernandes' induction into the Union Cabinet. What is worse, only two weeks earlier, Mr. Advani had flexed his muscle to ease out a Chief Minister of his own party, Mr. Keshubhai Patel, only on the basis of unproven allegations of corruption and ineptitude. But in the case of Mr. Fernandes, whose official residence was used to accept illegal donations from bogus ``arms agents'', Mr. Advani has applied a different standard. Then, there are a number of silent conspirators. There is the President of India, Mr. K. R. Narayanan, who should have at least raised with the Prime Minister the question of propriety of re-inducting Mr. Fernandes before the Commission of Inquiry had finished its task.

The President was indeed duty-bound to invoke the spirit of the recent Supreme Court judgment that had unseated Ms. Jayalalitha as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The President would have been entirely within the limits of his presidential discretion if he had applied the yardstick the Governor of Kerala used in not swearing in as Minister an indicted gentleman.

Another functionary who stands accused of being a co-conspirator is the Chief Justice of India. After all, it was Mr. Justice A. S. Anand who was beseeched by the Vajpayee regime to find a sitting or retired judge to preside over the Tehelka probe; at that time the Government used the credibility, respectability and institutional prestige of the Chief Justice of India to tell the country that it was sincere in its desire to uphold the rule of law. Now the Prime Minister has thumbed his nose at the Judiciary. It is not known if Mr. Justice Anand has in any way felt slighted by the rubbishing of the Venkataswami Commission. May be the Prime Minister has cynically calculated that Mr. Justice Anand has only 15 days left before he retired.

Not to be left out of the list of conspirators is Mr. Justice Venkataswami. He should have sent in his resignation the moment Mr. Fernandes was spotted at Rashtrapati Bhavan on October 15. As far as the Vajpayee Government is concerned, the retired Justice could take all the time in the world to identify wrong-doing, if any, in defence deals. Then, there are sundry, low conspirators such as Ms. Mamata Banerjee and Mr. Jaswant Singh. On March 15, Ms. Banerjee had released to the press a letter she had written to the Prime Minister, demanding the ouster of Mr. Fernandes. ``The image of our Prime Minister should not be allowed to be tarnished in any way. We strongly feel that the Prime Minister should be given a free hand to initiate strong action to uphold the transparency and morality in the Government.'' Ms. Banerjee was on the verge of facing the electorate, she needed to pretend that she was for transparency and morality in the Government; now, six months later, the Trinamool Congress leader has endorsed and justified Mr. Fernandes' return.

A foot-note conspirator is Mr. Jaswant Singh. On Friday evening, he snapped at the pressmen who wanted to know if the country was going to get a new Defence Minister; two days later, on Sunday, he allowed himself to go on record that ``his good friend'' Mr. Fernandes would make an excellent Defence Minister. Perhaps small ``royalties'' are capable of only petty scheming.

Above all, there is Mr. Vajpayee himself, to whom this FIR must now return. In his March 16 address to the nation, the Prime Minister had promised that ``the Government shall do everything necessary to bring everyone guilty to account - howsoever high or low. Its only concerns are... that institutions of governance and our political system regain their health''. This was a reassuring reiteration of the Government's commitment to the rule of law, a system of governance in which the rules of the game are respected by all, including those who temporarily lose but the losers retain their faith in the fairness of the rules so that they would want to continue to play by those rules. Mr. Vajpayee pretended that he was more than a leader of the ruling party (parties), and was mindful of his role as the custodian of the governing institutions. On October 15, Mr. Vajpayee abused that faith.

The Prime Minister is guilty of undermining the legitimacy of all institutions of the Indian state. How will, for example, an interlocutor convince the ``separatist'' groups in Kashmir that the Indian system is fair and that its rules are not fixed as per the requirements of the moment? How will the Naga groups negotiating peace with New Delhi trust the Centre's word? Why should now a potential criminal - white collar, blue collar or in pin-stripes - be respectful of the Indian system?

The Prime Minister has grievously damaged the very fabric of our constitutional order. By contrast, when confronted with an adverse judgment from the apex court, Mr. Laloo Prasad Yadav took care to pretend to be reaffirming his faith in the Judiciary. But Mr. Vajpayee is untroubled by the enormity of his moral lapse.

The most serious charge against the Prime Minister and the NDA crowd is their invocation of ``national security'' to justify the return of an ``un-cleared'' Mr. Fernandes as Defence Minister. Even more unacceptable is the fiction that he was the best Defence Minister (who had the inglorious distinction of sacking a service chief, and who presided over the Kargil infiltration); then, there is the fiction that he was popular with the troops, and hence was not to be encumbered with the protocol of ``transparency and morality''. These are dangerous propositions, all calculated to murder republican virtues.

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