Breaching the final bastion
The belief in the years immediately after independence that there were two sets of laws in India - one for the rich and the other for the poor - is gradually being dispelled.
As Jayalalithaa’s conviction in the disproportionate assets case shows, high-flying politicians can no longer avoid the long arm of the law. Although the proverbial delay still prevents a quick conviction, the accused have come to know that their high political status can no longer save them beyond a certain period of time.
However, it is probably just as well that the courts are rarely in a hurry to mete out justice, for a hasty verdict can attract criticism about a possible failure on the part of the prosecutors, the defence and the judges to conduct a thorough scrutiny of the cases. The impression of a kangaroo court, the bane of all authoritarian regimes, must be avoided at all costs.
It is not a matter of regret, therefore, that it took so long to pass the sentence against the former Tamil Nadu chief minister. The conviction cannot but act as a warning to all politicians - high and low - who may have looked upon their professions as a quick way to amass a fortune. Now, they will know that the axe is bound to fall sooner or later.
Jayalalithaa may be the first chief minister to face the ignominy of having been found to have used her time in office to feather her nest. But there are others such as former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad and former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala who have fallen foul of the law and have spent their time behind bars. Then, there are others like former telecom minister A. Raja and DMK chief M. Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi who have also been incarcerated for their suspected involvement in the spectrum scam.
However, for all the bigwigs who have been caught with their hands in the till, the average person will still think that there are others who have managed to evade the consequences of their illegal monetary transgressions by either being too clever to leave their fingerprints behind or because the prosecutors have not been diligent enough to probe too deeply.
Misgivings of this nature explain the ill fame which the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has acquired, which led to the organization being derisively called the Congress Bureau of Investigation when the Congress was in power.
Among those who got away because the CBI was thought to be lax was Ottavio Quottrocchi, an Italian friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family who was widely believed to have had something to do with the Bofors howitzer scam, which brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989. As that episode showed, the suspects may pay a political price for their alleged misdemeanours but can escape imprisonment or a heavy fine.
Now that the judiciary has begun to crack down on the malfeasants in high places with greater frequency than before, the next step is to seal off the escape routes by freeing the investigative agencies from political control so that they can pursue the crooks without fear or favour. Only then will the still lingering perception of two sets of laws be totally eradicated and India can claim to have joined the ranks of advanced countries where the rule of law is paramount.
It is unfortunate that for the all the progress that has been made in nabbing the high and mighty, court cases have still to be moved out of the states where they wield considerable influence so that they will not be able to exert pressure on the legal process. It wasn’t only the cases relating to the Gujarat riots which had to be moved out to Maharashtra so that the judiciary could not be suborned in any way, but also the cases concerning Karunanidhi’s son, M.K. Alagiri, in Madurai.
What these transfers show is how susceptible the administrations are to the clout of local politicos who usually answer to the description of the mafia.
The large number of MPs and MLAs with criminal backgrounds explains why it is impossible to carry out a fair trial in areas of their influence. The violence which followed Jayalalithaa’s conviction is also an indication of how lumpen elements have infiltrated into politics at all levels. The anger and distress of her followers are understandable because a one-person party like the AIADMK will be in disarray in Jayalalithaa’s absence.
What is more, Tamil Nadu itself will suffer because the DMK too is not in the pink of health because of Karunanidhi’s advanced age and the inability of his two squabbling sons, M.K. Stalin and Alagiri, to provide a measure of stability. But while leaders have to control their greed, the followers have to learn to accept the judicial pronouncements with restraint.