When loyalty trumps governance

Political functionaries in India are known to take party and personal loyalties to the extreme, offering blind support to leaders who face grave allegations of misdemeanour or corruption. But once elected to high public office, political representatives ought not to make pre-emptive comments about the outcome of corruption or other criminal cases or on the guilt or innocence of those involved in such cases. There is thus no justification or excuse for Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam to have made the remarks he did in the State Assembly on the appeal by his party general secretary, former chief minister Jayalalithaa, against her conviction under the Prevention of Corruption Act. The Karnataka High Court has concluded its hearing in the case and has reserved its verdict; the Supreme Court has fixed a mid-April deadline for the appeal to be disposed of. At this juncture, it is unfortunate and regrettable that a Chief Minister should use the floor of the Legislative Assembly to assert his belief that his party leader will be declared innocent and will be back to lead the government. Mr. Panneerselvam’s reply to the debate on the budget bordered on sycophancy as he compared Ms. Jayalalithaa to Joan of Arc and the Rani of Jhansi. While a judge in the higher judiciary in a neighbouring State is unlikely to be influenced by such propaganda, this will no doubt be seen as a coarse attempt to influence public opinion by projecting her popularity as something that outweighs any hint of culpability. In the context of the orchestrated protests and administrative stasis that marked the early days of his regime following Ms. Jayalalithaa’s conviction on September 27 last year, his statements carry an ominous weight.

In the six months since Ms. Jayalalithaa was unseated, Mr. Panneerselvam has given the impression that he is not a full-fledged Chief Minister but one holding the post as an interim measure until Ms. Jayalalithaa is cleared by the higher courts. While it is his personal choice to work out of his office as Finance Minister even after becoming the Chief Minister, there is little justification for using formal occasions such as the Republic Day parade earlier this year for promoting his predecessor’s image as the real force controlling the administration. Every department had floats that featured Ms. Jayalalithaa’s photographs and achievements, portraying her as a looming omnipresence over the State government. Major decisions have been kept pending in anticipation of her return to power, a clear example being the inexplicable delay in inaugurating the Chennai Metro Rail project. While this may earn him some brownie points from a party leadership that is prone to encourage sycophancy, it ill-behoves a constitutional functionary to demonstrate party loyalty to the detriment of governance and public interest.

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