Rule of law takes a plunge

By Rajdeep Sardesai

When should a minister resign or be sacked? It’s a vexed question that’s been blowing in the political wind once again ever since union minister of state for home, Ajay Mishra found himself in the line of fire over the horrifying Lakhimpur violence. The viral video of a VVIP cavalcade mowing down protesting farmers in the minister’s constituency and the lynching that followed should haunt the mantri for a long time: it exposes a shameful disregard for human life in what can only be described as cold blooded murder. Rather than show any remorse, the minister has chosen to brazen it out while standing by his son who has been arrested for his alleged role in the grisly chain of events. While the opposition has taken its demand for the minister’s resignation to the president and farm groups have organized rail roko protests, the Modi government has oscillated between conspicuous silence and spurious whataboutery. Which only exposes the further moral degradation of a polity where notions of political accountability and propriety are now a matter of convenience and not conviction.
Mishra is a two-time MP who has built a reputation of being a local toughie in his area of Lakhimpur Kheri. His rapid ascent from being a district zilla parishad member a decade ago to being sworn in as a union minister this July reveals a typical political graph where caste-community equations triumph over any concept of merit or administrative experience. Mishra’s appointment in the home ministry was seen as part of the BJP’s Brahmin quota in the council of ministers, designed to send a message to the party’s traditional vote bank ahead of the crucial Uttar Pradesh elections next year. Even a cursory glance at his CV would reveal a controversial history of being charged with assault, intimidation, even murder. A judgment has been reserved by the Lucknow High Court since 2018 in a 2003 murder case in which Mishra is one of the prime accused (a sessions court had granted him relief earlier). That the ministry of home which is supposed to be the nodal ministry to supervise the country’s law and order should have as one of its ministerial occupants a politician fighting a murder charge only exposes the underlying griminess of a political system that has been systematically undermined by routine ethical compromises. Imagine the plight of honest IPS officers who have to obediently serve this system.
The argument that Mishra shouldn’t have to pay for the alleged sins of his son, Ashish is also reflective of a political milieu where the notion of ‘conflict of interest’ is almost non-existent. Is it not more than likely that a union minister who is an MP from the very region where a heinous crime allegedly involving his son has occurred can influence a police investigation, especially as only days before the Lakhimpur tragedy he was caught on camera threatening farm protestors? Does propriety not demand, based on a potential conflict of interest that the minister step aside till at least such time that the case is inquired into? Sadly, political reform in the country has never attempted to create the much needed institutional correctives to manage conflict of interests situations, thereby allowing elected representatives to unashamedly blur the lines between personal benefit and public obligations.
Unfortunately, the much-hyped Modi model of governance has also chosen not to read the riot act to ministers who flout their constitutional oath with sheer impunity. In the two decades of uninterrupted power in Gandhinagar and Delhi, Mr Modi has only forced a ministerial resignation once. MJ Akbar was made to resign in 2018 over ‘Me Too’ sexual harassment allegations made by a number of women: there was no FIR made out against Akbar but the charges were seen to have caused reputational damage. Perhaps, Akbar as a long-time English language journalist and late entrant into the BJP’s universe with no political base of his own was seen as dispensable in a manner that Mishra with his locally rooted ‘bahubali’ (strongman) network is not.
The only two other instances where ministers have had to resign in the Modi years are the high-profile exits of Amit Shah and Maya Kodnani in Gujarat in 2009-10, both of whom stepped down only when their anticipatory bail applications were rejected by the court and the CBI swooped in to arrest them. In these cases, their impending arrest left Mr Modi with no option but to reluctantly accept their resignation. In all other examples, Mr Modi has preferred to use the route of an occasional cabinet reshuffle or denial of a ticket at election time to effect a change in his ministerial team rather than insist on a sudden resignation. In fact, on another occasion, when a Gujarat minister Prabhatsinh Chauhan was charge-sheeted in a co-operative bank scam case, the minister was retained.
Which is why it is highly unlikely that Mishra too will be asked to tender his resignation until such time as his position becomes wholly untenable. It is perhaps a demonstration of the muscular strongman image that the prime minister has made his distinctive calling card that any ministerial resignation under media or opposition pressure is seen as a sign of weakness, a chink in the formidable armory that is designed to create an aura of invincibility around the Supreme Leader. A resignation being taken under duress is not what the Modi larger than life persona is comfortable with.
Contrast this with the UPA years when ministers charged not just with corruption but even those who were accused of the slightest impropriety had to step down. In May 2013, for example, Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Bansal, both ministers in the Manmohan Singh government had to resign because of a ‘public perception’ that they might have misused their office. While Kumar as law minister was accused of interfering in a coal probe, Bansal as railway minister resigned after his nephew was arrested for accepting an alleged bribe for a Rail Board post. In neither case was individual culpability established, but both had to quit. Unlike the Modi government’s impregnable status, the Manmohan Singh-led coalition government was simply too weak to resist internal or external pressures.
Paradoxically, the unbridled power of a domineering government is also its shield against any form of public scrutiny. But where the Modi regime falters is in confusing support for the prime minister’s leadership with that for Team Modi. By refusing to sack Mishra or even express concern over the Lakhimpur fallout, the government’s credibility and commitment to the rule of law has taken a hit. One day, the unchecked hubris could catch up with the leader too.
Post-script: In the focus on Mishra, the Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar has got away with shocking remarks virtually asking his supporters to retaliate with sticks against farm protestors. Khattar may now claim his comments were misconstrued but they reveal a dangerously retributive mindset that endorses violent vigilantism. But who will rein in our law-makers who see themselves above the law?
(The writer is a senior journalist and author. Mail: [email protected])

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