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April 29, 1998


Vir Sanghvi

When does it become improper for a minister to hold office?

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This is probably the most incorrect thing I'm going to write all year but I have to say it nevertheless: I agree with Jayalalitha. I think she has raised an important point and I think we are being foolish in attacking her on political grounds while missing the substantial issue that she addressed.

Jayalalitha's concern is with S Muthiah, an AIADMK MP who resigned as minister for surface transport once charges were framed against him by a Madras court. According to Jayalalitha, she asked him to resign once it became clear that the BJP government regarded his continuance in the Cabinet as an embarrassment.

Her supporters say she acted properly but it was unfair to have singled out Muthiah when there are other members of the ministry who continue in office despite facing criminal prosecutions. They have in mind Buta Singh, a renegade Congressman whose prosecution was ordered by the Supreme Court. But they also include all those BJP leaders who have been chargesheeted in the Ayodhya case. This list includes L K Advani, Uma Bharti, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi and others.

Jayalalitha's point is simple enough: you say that a man accused of crime cannot be a minister; fine, I agree -- but what about all the others who continue in the ministry even after my Muthiah has resigned?

It is not enough to respond -- as most of us have done -- by saying that she is a temperamental woman who wants to bring down this government. Perhaps she is and perhaps she isn't.

But the issue remains valid: when does it become improper for a man to continue in office?

The most recent precedent was set -- ah, sweet irony of life! -- by Narasimha Rao when his CBI filed the hawala chargesheets. He insisted that all chargesheeted ministers resign, even before the court had framed charges. Of those in the Opposition so charged, (a list that includes the current home minister and finance minister), only L K Advani -- who had obviously been framed -- had the guts to go a step further. He declared that he would withdraw from electoral politics until he has been exonerated.

Narasimha Rao took heart from Advani's gesture and promptly withdrew all chargesheeted Congressmen from electoral politics by the simple expedient of unilaterally denying them party tickets. Many rebelled and stood anyway. Some like Kalpnath Rai won and others like Kamal Nath got their wives elected.

At the time, there was a huge debate on the issue. Everybody agreed that the chargesheeted ministers should resign but there was no unanimity on the morality of denying them tickets. The Janata Dal and the BJP did not follow the Congress's lead, arguing that a man is innocent till he's proven guilty. On the whole, the electorate tended to agree.

That is roughly where the consensus has remained over the last two years. When the United Front came to power, Sharad Yadav was denied a ministry because he had been chargesheeted in hawala but this did not stop the Janata Dal from making him president. Oddly enough, even Narasimha Rao seems to subscribe to the new consensus and not to the views he held as prime minister. Even though he has been chargesheeted in a host of cases, he still expected to get a Congress ticket this year.

The confusion has arisen after the last election. The BJP alliance did not subscribe to the view that chargesheeted individuals could not be made ministers. Muthiah had already been chargesheeted when he was made surface transport minister and Buta Singh, who was involved in the JMM bribery case, bargained for a Cabinet ministry in return for supporting the BJP.

In the state, the situation was even worse. Sukh Ram, who epitomises the crooked politician in the public mind, was expelled from the Congress, formed his own party and held the balance of power in the Himachal assembly. To gain office, the BJP won Sukh Ram over and when he gets elected from Mandi, he will expect to be made a minister.

As far as I can see, the only issue of principle in the Muthiah case is that he could not continue in office once charges had been framed. This is a slightly bizarre principle (to the extent that it is a principle at all). The man had been chargesheeted when he was made a minister. Of course, charges were going to be framed.

But even if you accept this argument, there are problems. What do you do about all the BJP leaders who are named in the Ayodhya case? In that matter, charges were filed even before they were sworn in.

You have two escape routes. One: say that the principle only applies to corruption cases. This is a dangerous precedent because its logical extension is that a murderer can become a minister but a thief can't. And though I, personally, have no doubt that the likes of Advani and Dr Joshi were not involved in the Babri Masjid demolition, matters of principle cannot be decided on the basis of individual belief. Moreover, there is no shortage of people who will claim that a man who destroys a place of worship and causes riots is morally no better than a man who takes a bribe.

That leaves the second escape route. You say that the principle does not apply when the cases are obviously false and filed by vindicate governments. You could make such a claim about the Ayodhya chargesheet but there are two new problems. Firstly, Advani claimed that the hawala case was obviously false and filed by a vindictive Narasimha Rao but he withdrew from electoral politics anyway. In the interests of consistency, can he take a different stand on Ayodhya?

There is another problem. 'Obviously false case... vindictive government...' Where have we heard these phrases before? Why, from Jayalalitha of course. Her view is that all the cases against the AIADMK are frame-ups engineered by M Karunanidhi and P Chidambaram. If you let the BJP off the hook on Ayodhya, then aren't you obliged to do the same for the AIADMK on corruption cases?

It is not my case that crooks should be made ministers. Nor is it my case that Advani and Dr Joshi should resign (though I won't shed any tears for Buta Singh).

My point is a little more basic. We are now in a situation where more and more politicians are being chargesheeted: either because they are dishonest or because of vindictive governments.

We need to evolve a consensus on how such politicians are to be treated. But instead of doing that, we are taking the easy way out and getting self-righteous about Jayalalitha.

Vir Sanghvi

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