No one is above the law

It is time for our luminaries to give up trying to seek exemptions from our laws, and realise that greatness consists in submitting to the laws of the land

Published - March 10, 2015 02:52 am IST

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Distinguished Indians are increasingly being dethroned and their reputations decimated by scandals. Some of the scandals are part of what happens everywhere — the charges of rape that have afflicted the editor of Tehelka magazine, >Tarun Tejpal , the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, >Rajendra Pachauri , and the self-confessed plagiarism by journalist Fareed Zakaria. But other scandals, such as the ones that have disgraced Muhammad Yunus (who is a Bangladeshi but shares our culture) and been levelled against my good friend Amartya Sen for the irregularities in the >Nalanda affair , hold a lesson for India that goes well beyond what has happened to these luminaries. What do their scandals signify?

Take Dr. Yunus, who was given the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in microfinance in Grameen Bank (though it is well-known that microfinance was pioneered two years earlier by Ela Bhatt, a relatively self-effacing Gandhian, of the Self-Employed Women’s Association). He was unwilling to retire from Grameen Bank when he reached the retirement age in Bangladesh.

In the end he was forced by the Bangladesh Supreme Court to retire, even though he managed to get his friends abroad — such as Hillary Clinton, who, despite her claim to be a champion of women, sided with Dr. Yunus against Sheikh Hasina, a woman leader who had won her election fair and square and without piggybacking on her illustrious father — to threaten retribution against the Bangladeshi government through actions such as aid cut-off.

Underlining eminence The astonishing aspect of this affair was that it came about at all. Given the subcontinental culture, Dr. Yunus did not need to flout the law regarding retirement. He would have been able to retain his office till kingdom come, with reverential orderlies and staff paying him full respect (what is called sashtang pranam ). Evidently, Dr. Yunus was after something else. And that had to be the fact that, as with Indian elites, he wanted to underline his eminence by asserting that it put him above the laws that apply to ordinary men and women.

The Nalanda affair can be explained in the same way. The irregularities that have now been amply documented by investigative journalists are impossible to explain unless we believe that Professor Sen, having earned the Nobel Prize in Economics, wound up thinking that he (and therefore Nalanda as well) were entitled to special exemptions from the laws that govern the rest of us. So, Nalanda was granted special privileges that no other university seems to have been granted; and even the working of Nalanda was marked by irregularities as when unconscionable amounts were paid to the vice chancellor, who was chosen despite her inadequate qualifications.

I also wonder what is to be made of the fact that although Dr. Sen and I were in fundamental disagreement over important issues of public policy, which required us to debate issues to produce an informed citizenry, he refused to enter into a debate. Was it beneath his exalted status to debate with me on those issues? Does an Indian Nobel laureate make pronouncements like he was Moses laying down the Ten Commandments, and suffer no dissent? Also, he was visibly annoyed when the Vice Chairman of Niti Aayog, Arvind Panagariya, disagreed with him on a television panel; he berated Dr. Panagariya saying that the latter did not know about India because he lived in New York, only to have this boomerang on him when Dr. Panagariya retorted that Dr. Sen lived in Cambridge and spent less time in India than Dr. Panagariya did.

This type of behaviour is evident everywhere on the Indian subcontinent, I am afraid. Go to the airports. You have lists of people who are exempted from security clearance: apparently Robert Vadra was on such a list, underlining the fact that marrying into the Nehru-Gandhi family entitled him to be treated differently from all others.

I also recall how, when I was working in 1962 in the Planning Commission in Yojana Bhawan for the great Indian planner Pitambar Pant on how to reduce poverty, on loan from the Indian Statistical Institute where I was a Professor of Economics, I was visited by the economist-wife of a very eminent Indian bureaucrat-economist. The security officer asked her for her identification. My visitor got indignant and she went on to complain; the officer was chastised. Evidently my visitor felt that her status entitled her to be exempt from the security procedures.

Lack of absolute power While this is part of our inherited social DNA, it is one of the admirable features of the new Prime Minister that he frowns upon such behaviour, expecting everyone to conform to laws instead of looking the other way at attempts by individuals to define and enhance their status by exemptions from the laws.

Lord Acton famously remarked that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I add to this dictum: lack of absolute power corrupts absolutely as well. It is time for our luminaries to give up their tendency to seek absolute power by seeking exemptions from our laws, and to realise that true greatness consists in joining their fellow citizens in a truly egalitarian spirit and submitting to the laws of the land.

(Jagdish Bhagwati is Professor of Economics, Law and International Affairs, Columbia University.)

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