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February 21, 1998


The Rediff Election Interview/Ramakant Khalap

'No party wants a watertight anti-defection law'

Despite entering Parliament for the first time in 1996, Ramakant Khalap, the sole MP of the Goa-based Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, became Union minister of state for law and justice with independent charge.

Impressed by his performance in the H D Deve Gowda government, Prime Minister I K Gujral gave him the additional responsibility of company law.

Khalap had a sensational tenure of 10 months, coming as it did when judicial activism peaked and several top politicians were arrested on charges of corruption. Also, liberalisation has made it necessary to drastically change several features in several legislations in the country.

While the prospects of the United Front returning to power seems bleak, Khalap is also struggling to retain his North Goa seat, where his fate will be decided on February 28. Rumours abound that he may join the BJP-led government, since the white-haired lawyer-turned-politician is known to be close to the saffron leaders in Delhi.

Sandesh Prabhudesai spoke to him at length on his achievements, unfulfilled agenda, and future political plans Excerpts:

What are your major achievements as Union law minister, a responsibility you discharged quite successfully?

I am fully satisfied with the opportunities that I got and the work that I have done.

The most important one, among all, is the formation of the Law Reforms Commission, set up under the chairmanship of Justice Jeevan Reddy, former chief justice of India, to study and propose reforms to all the existing laws in the country. It has become necessary with the Indian economy being liberalised and India becoming World Trade Organisation member.

Besides this, steps are being taken to reform the civil and criminal procedures, start a system of alternate dispute redressal, set up Lok Adalats for speedy justice, initiate a process to clear the around 40 million long-pending cases countrywide in one-and-a-half years's time, amend the Notaries Act 1954 for the first time, pass a new Arbitration Law, and initiate the delimitation of constituencies. I have also computerised the high courts and the Supreme Court, while making the whole legal system available on the Internet.

What about your election promise to give a common civil code to the whole nation, like the one you have in the state of Goa?

I will definitely succeed, but partially. I began a nationwide debate on the issue due to which even the BJP today agrees that a common civil code should be formulated only after a consensus among most political parties is reached.

But the BJP's recent manifesto proposes to tell the Law Commission to prepare a draft, incorporating good features from all the personal laws. Why did you fail to do it?

There is no substance in what the BJP is saying. The Law Commission is already seized of the matter and its terms of reference also include aspects of personal laws.

Do you think a consensus is possible?

We can definitely have consensus on certain aspects, if not all, and bring them into force. For instance, we partially succeeded in bringing in a few electoral reforms, and even though no consensus could emerge on all the proposals, some have become the law today.

Which major electoral reforms remain to be brought in?

We wanted to take up reforms in the Anti-Defection Act, state funding of elections, and prevention of criminals from entering the fray. But unfortunately, no consensus could reached in all three cases.

For example, every party agrees that a defector should be disqualified. But they are not positive on not providing any loophole. The present law allows splits if it is done by a third of the legislators.

What is the way out?

A bill can be moved, providing for disqualification on the grounds of defections per say, without making any provision for requalification. Let the House decide.

But the House always leaves some or the other loopholes. Now you have barred criminals from contesting elections, but only those who are convicted. The "undertrials" are free to contest. How do you justify it?

I don't justify it. On the contrary, I personally feel that any person, against whom lies a prima facie charge of heinous crime like dacoity, murder, involvement in scams, or even a case under COFEPOSA (Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act), he needs to be kept out of the fray. But I must confess that it is not an easy thing to do, because the Fundamental Rights say that no person is a criminal unless convicted.

Does that mean that criminals would continue to remain in politics?

That's the fear. The only solution is to reform the procedure of criminal trials in such a way that judgments are made available in the shortest possible period.

As a law minister of this country, you have experienced the most active days of the Indian judiciary. How do you describe it?

Judicial activism was always been looked upon with awe and scepticism. But I have sounded a note of caution about its overuse or superactivity.

Was it misused?

That fear is still there. The actual scope under the public interest litigation and judicial activism has been lost sight of, resulting in the court encroaching on the rights of the other two wings of our democratic set-up.

What happened to your plans of proposing some amendments to the system of filing PIL?

Not amendments. I said the Supreme Court should lay down proper parameters for filing PIL so that the people know under what circumstances they can approach the courts. This would also give give the courts guidelines on the extent to which they can pass orders.

The judiciary is stepping into every aspect of the government functioning today, giving enough justifications for it. But do you believe that the judiciary is fully clean?

Nothing can be absolutely clean and the judiciary is not an exception to the rule. This has been even admitted by former chief justice (J S) Verma, who attempted to build an inhouse mechanism to check it.

You can impeach the judges before the House...

It's not practical. But the time has come, I feel, to evolve a new procedure for both the appointments and transfers of the judges as well as to deal with the aspect of disciplinary action. We need an independent body like a Judicial Commission to deal with such matters.

Does it also include the appointment of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? Because the appointment of the present chief justice itself became controversial...

Why not? Because there is no proper forum legally made available to investigate allegations against the judges. Today judges appoint the judges. The prime minister and the law minister are mere glorified postmen. We have no role to play into it. We had to accept the report submitted by the chief justice, whose report gave a clean chit to Justice Punchhi after investigating the allegations made against him.

The BJP is today suggesting that the face of the Constitution be changed and we should accept the Presidential system. What do you feel about it?

The country must wait and watch the evolution through which we are passing. It's an era of coalitions and alliances. As long as the coalition governments work effectively with 'common minimum programmes' and does not become a chronic crisis, we should not think of the Presidential form of government. In a country like ours, where we are ridden with disparities of caste, creed, religion, and language, one person cannot emerge as a national leader, who can carry the entire population with him.

Is it true that you were trying to seek an election alliance with the BJP to win the election from Goa, and which might also give you a ministerial berth if it comes to power?

It's totally false. I am with the UF and will remain with the UF. I am not in that class of politicians who jump sides for petty gains.

Do you think that a ministerial berth is a petty gain?

Of course. If a ministerial berth attracts a politician from one party to another, what is it other than defection, which is banned under the Constitution of India?

That is for the political parties and not broad fronts like the UF...

Still, it's a defection.

Does it mean that you will remain with the UF forever?

I will remain with the UF as long as the UF remains.

But the UF has already split...

To some extent. It's still in power and its major components are still there.

The prime basis for coming together under the banner of the United Front was to keep the BJP out of power. But if the BJP comes to power tomorrow with its allies while the UF splits, would you keep yourself away from joining the BJP government?

I will see the common minimum programme of the BJP-led government before taking a decision. But I think it will be the UF government once again, supported by the Congress.

The Rediff Election Interviews

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