An insider in our system

Of all the opprobria heaped on Rahul Gandhi for intervening in the ordinance to protect honourable criminal convict-legislators by an honourable prime minister’s honourable cabinet, the one by Devil’s Advocate Karan Thapar sticks in the mind. Karan’s job was made easy because everybody had already identified the Devil of the week: Rahul Gandhi. But since the closest thing you can do to interviewing Rahul is to speak to one of his cronies, he caught hold of Sachin Pilot. The poor dummy Devil was in for a surprise because his Advocate turned on him and when Pilot said ‘to make an omelette you have to break the egg’, Karan seized the moment: ‘Yes, but in this case the egg has ended up on his (Rahul’s) face, not on the pan,’ he said with a triumphant I-rest-my-case look.

Rahul had to contend with much more than just an egg on his face. Never before had any political leader been butchered for doing something that everybody agreed was the right thing to do. But apparently the standards of morality and rectitude in public life and office are very high these days. So high that while celebrating the death of the ordinance Rahul was scalded for the timing, manner and motive of his self-admittedly sudden and surprisingly vehement denouncement of the ordinance. The charge on Rahul was rather serious. He had damaged, denigrated, dwarfed, diminished, dishonoured, disfigured, destroyed, demolished, defaced, defiled, devalued the democratic institution of the prime minister of India and his hoary cabinet. It did not matter that his mother got there first nine-and-a-half years ago when she chose to be the super prime minister with a super cabinet and that there was nothing much left for Rahul to do on that score. What mattered was the institutional structure of our democracy was (another ‘D’ word) distorted by Rahul because, as the 19th century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville said (and brought to our notice by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his column, Blunt hammer syndrome), ‘all democratic government is sustained by form’.

Rahul, by this single impetuous act of defiance had deformed democracy so much beyond repair that no convicted criminal legislator can make a home for himself/herself in our venerable legislatures anymore. Where would these dis-housed destitutes of democracy go? But a more fundamental question was given the go-by: how did these guys enter parliament’s divine portals in the first place? Was not democracy already sullied way before Rahul rolled in the bulldozers on 26 September?

We all know the answer to those questions. But the entire media and the die-hard institutionalists – those who would rather let the institution collapse under its own ill-weight than save it with help from extraneous sources – would have none of it. Rahul was not even an outsider, but it did not matter to them. It did not matter either that Lalu Yadav was given alternative accommodation in another democratic institution at the instance of a third democratic institution. They trotted out all the regular righteous wise stuff about ‘means justifying ends’ and ‘doing the right thing the right way at the right time’.

The Congress party is never in the habit of explaining fully the guerrilla tactics of His Imperial Highness. Rahul himself emerges here and there and says this and that for which he is fashionably lampooned. Everything he says is quickly turned into ‘nonsense’ even without him having to mention the word. So we will never know why he chose to do what he did when he did the way he did it. It is quite possible that he wanted to steal the thunder from president Pranab Mukherjee who had indicated that he might return the ordinance.

There are legitimate questions about Rahul’s timing that needed to be asked and they were. Rahul made no public statement against it when the bill was introduced in parliament in August or when the Congress core committee, of which he is a member, okayed the ordinance just a few days before his outburst. Obviously, he failed to convince that his conduct in the immediate past – spanning the birth and death of the bill and ordinance – was consistent with what he said at the press conference. But that was just about six weeks of convenient policy slumber. Was that all there was to Rahul? Was this enough to judge him on his views, beliefs, commitment and work on political reforms within his party? What about the six years he spent as general secretary in the party? What did he do? There is enough evidence to show that Rahul’s position on decriminalisation of politics is a core belief and not just a flash-in-the-pan act of political opportunism. He has nearly six years of work to show for it. The media knows that but does not care to connect it with the ordinance row preferring to limit the discussion to how he undermined the prime minister and the union cabinet.

That is a suicidal position to take for any political writer so allow me a little detour to take the argument forward. If our constitution is the foundation of our democracy, universal adult suffrage is the first brick in the structure and public opinion the scaffolding that is erected around it, first to build the structure and then to re-emerge once in a while to keep it in place and in shape. This universal adult suffrage, this maturity of the mostly unlettered voter, is what gives us our bragging rights. We pride ourselves in the fact that we conduct the largest and the most complex electoral exercise of the world every five years just to give power to the voice of the people.

Rahul’s experiment is reaching its mid-life. He has now spent his entire tenure as political administrator trying to devise means to bring the voice of the people into the political system. Substantial though that effort is, it is nowhere near sufficient to redeem him and his party in 2014.

What Rahul Gandhi is doing to democratise his party has the potential to return democracy to a form that has some semblance with what our forefathers imagined for it. From the entire galaxy of political parties and politicians he is the only one committed to restoring it to some original form.
So, let us fill more wind in Rahul’s wings. If he abandons this experiment and walks away mid-way, it may do nothing to his political career. Then, the egg will be on our face, not Rahul’s.

By arrangement with Governance Now
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