A Dangerous Doctrine

 Horror of horrors. Corruption, already widespread and rampant, is now sought to be made respectable, even legal. This is the upshot of the Lok Sabha debate last Thursday on the censure motion against the controversial Union Energy Minister, Mr. A.B. Ghani Khan Choudhuri, which has not yet received the attention it merits. Expectedly, the motion, brought forward by Mr. JyotirmoyBosu, an indefatigable crusader, was defeated. But there was much else that was unexpected — and depressing. Mr. Choudhuri, attired in a champagne pink bushshirt, refused to speak even one word in self defence, ignoring the popular adage: silence is half confession. Mrs. Gandhi was conspicuous by her absence, notwithstanding democratic conventions. Worse. While Mr. C.M. Stephen, who put up the principal defence from the Treasury benches, justified as “bona fide” all that Mr. Chaudhuri had done, Mr. Shiv Shankar, Law Minister, went many steps further to propound the amazing theory that there was “absolutely nothing wrong” for a Minister to “nurse his constituency.”

First the acts, as put forward by Mr. Bosu and Mr. Indrajit Gupta but not controverted. In February and March last, the Energy Minister issued 133 coal permits to persons in West Bengal. Of these, 119 permits, totaling 38,218 tonnes of coal, were allotted to parties in his own district: Malda in north Bengal. Further, 111 of these 119 persons were from Shujapur and Kalichak, which constitute the heart of Mr. Choudhuri’s Parliamentary constituency. (Mr. Chaudhuri earlier represented Shujapur in the State Assembly.) West Bengal has 15 other districts and allotment to these totaled only 5,500 tonnes. None of the other four districts in north Bengal was allotted even an ounce of coal. Most of the “allotees” were non-existence or untraceable and some were minors, including one aged ten years. Malda, an agricultural district, has no thermal power station, contrary to a point made by Mr Shiv Shankar. It has some silk industry, which requires warm water for extracting silk from cocoons. But for this the industry uses firewood and charcoal.

Now the allegations. All the permits were issued under the direction of the Minister, notwithstanding the fact that coal licensing comes within the jurisdiction of the State Government. Mr. Chaudhuri’s magnamity towards Malda was not accidental, according to Mr. Bosu. Almost the entire quantity of over 38,000 tonnes found its way into the blackmarket and much of it was smuggled into Bangladesh. “Cross the river by boat and you get 3,000 takkas per tonne in Bangladesh”, according to Mr. Bosu. (A takka is equal to about Rs.1.88) Controlled coal is priced in India at Rs.250 per tonne. But it is sold in the open at about Rs.1,000 per tonne. Permits along are sold at a premium of Rs.100 per tonne in Calcutta. Malda, which is West Bengal’s smallest district, was once a part of Rajshahi district, now in Bangladesh, and the two are now divided mainly by an easy land border. English Bazar, the district headquarter of Malda, is connected by a straight road to the Rajashahi border, about eight kilometers away. The coal permits issued by Mr. Chaudhuri were only “a trip of the iceberg.”

Mr. Shiv Shankar, a new entrant to Parliament, was understandably anxious to prove his utility as a judge-turned-politician to his supreme leader, Mrs Gandhi. But in doing so he should not have allowed his enthusiasm to run away with his better judgement and put across the dangerous doctrine that a Minister is free to nurse his constituency as he likes — a view which in one stroke destroys all that Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and other great democrats like Winston Churchill advocated and stood for. Carried to its logical conclusion the doctrine could, in effect, mean that every Minister at the Centre and in the States would be entitled to nurse their respective constituencies by distributing favours and largesses to their relations, friends, business associates and loyal supporters. Collectively, they would be free to raise funds for the party (and, of course, for themselves) through all means fair or foul. It could eventually promote a new class of privileged citizens and convert India into a country ruled by an all-powerful Congress (I) oligarchy.

Not a few veteran parliamentarians are shocked and horrified by what Mr. Shiv Shankar has advocated. As it should be, they feel that the Law Minister’s view goes totally against the spirit of parliamentary democracy and the healthy norms and conventions according to which it is expected to function. These norms and conventions were succinctly put forward by none other than Churchill. The great British leader and parliamentarian was clear that a member of Parliament was not a delegate of the constituency but its representative in the nation’s highest forum: Parliament. In other words, he was not elected merely to secure the well-being and progress of his electors and the constituency. According to Churchill, an MP’s first duty was to his conscience, next to his country and last of all to his constituency. He was expected, therefore, to act in all conscience and not to forget the best interest of his country. What has been advocated now is not only certain to introduce grave distortions into our system but will tend to encourage the Ministers and, in due course, the ordinary MPs to virtually say: to hell with the conscience and the country.

Not only that. What came to pass in the Lok Sabha on Thursday afternoon undermined the concept of parliamentary accountability — apart from leaving old ringside viewers like myself intrigued and dumbfounded. Contrary to expectations and practice, Ghani Khan Sahib, as he is popularly called, sat stoically silent in the second row of the Treasury benches and refused to exercise his right to defend himself. The charge leveled by Mr. Bosu was against Mr. Choudhuri personally and not against the Government as a whole. It was thus for Mr. Choudhurito stand up boldly and face the House. However, he refused to do anything of the kind even when he was accused by Mr. Bosu at the outset of having gone to Malda recently to secure “false affidavits in an attempt to absolve himself.” Mr. Stephen and Mr. Shiv Shankar, too, could have spoken and justified additionally whatever Mr. Choudhuri did. But they could not, in all conscience, be a substitute or proxy for Mr. Choudhuri, raising an interesting side issue: Are we hereafter going to

have lawyers to defend Ministers in Parliament?

Parliamentary experts are also astounded at Mr. Choudhuri’s failure to exercise his Constitutional right. (I have known of persons over the past three decades who were willing to give their left arm to clear themselves in Parliament.) Some even feel that the Congress (I) benches got away with “murder”, so to say, on the plea that Mr. Charan Singh had also chosen not to speak two years ago when faced with a censure motion and the charges leveled against him were answered by Mr. Morarji Desai. The two issues are not on all fours. Mr. Desai spoke as Prime Minister who is expected to oversee the functioning of his Cabinet. He was within his right to tell Parliament that he was satisfied with a colleague’s conduct. In the present case, however, even if Mrs. Gandhi had intervened, it would still not have been the same thing. There is a qualitative difference between the charges leveled against Mr. Charan Singh (atrocities against the Harijans) and those against Mr. Choudhuri. The latter was accused of corruption and misuse of office. It was clearly not for the PM or the other Ministers to explain what he had said or what he had meant.

The Speaker would have been within his right to ask Mr. Choudhuri himself to clarify matters before permitting other Ministers to speak. In fact, one parliamentary expert confidently asserts that had the incident taken place during the time of Speaker Mavalankar, the latter would have forced the Minister to speak for himself even if the Prime Minister had good reasons to fear that his colleague might again put his foot into his mouth. If Mrs Gandhi was troubled by any such fear, she should have intervened, even briefly. She could have in addition got Mr. Stephen and Mr. Shiv Shankar to speak. Alas, Mr. Gandhi herself faulted when she chose to stay away, ignoring her own responsibility as Prime Minister and leader of the House. As a veteran parliamentarian remarked: “Nehru would have cancelled all engagements to be present. He would have patiently sat through the debate and not stopped at that. If not immediately, he would have thereafter acted according to his conscience overriding petty party considerations. He stood for healthy traditions and a good, clean government. Remember Shanmukhan Chetty, K.D. Malaviya…”

Thursday, discussion in which many unparliamentary invectives were exchanged and later expunged also threw up many other points. But today I shall deal with only one: Mr. Stephen’s plea that Mr. Choudhuri had not really accused the West Bengal Government of smuggling. He had merely stated what he had been told. (Significantly, no one cared to answer a question put by an Opposition MP, Mr. BapusahebParulekar: “Why did Mr. Choudhuri not clarify for a whole month the point now made by Mr Stephen?”)  This raises a basic issue: Is it right and proper for a Central Minister to level charges against a State Government in Parliament merely on hearsay, even if he personally felt like throwing that Government into the Bay of Bengal? Mr. Choudhuri clearly acted recklessly in the matter. He should have taken the earliest opportunity to verify the facts from the Government in Calcutta even if he was personally convinced in the matter. No Central Minister should undermine the federal structure on the basis of personal feelings, however strong. Certain ground rules need to be followed on all sides — and observed scrupulously.

Ultimately the sinews of our democracy lie in the strength of our institutions and not merely the charisma or popularity of an individual leader. Strong and healthy institutions alone can take the country forward on the road to progress and ensure that the flame of liberty is not extinguished. We have undoubtedly to guard against external threats and dangers. Equally we have to guard against internal disorder and introducing a spoils system. Corruption has become a way of life for many today and may not for the present rouse our people to great anger. It may even temporarily appear to have become a non-issue. But then corruption is like cancer. It may not in its initial stages create any problems or cause any pain. However, it kills eventually. Corruption must be fought by the people on all fronts if we are not to jeopardize our independence whose anniversary we shall soon be celebrating. —INFA


The Dispatch is present across a number of social media platforms. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for exciting videos; join us on Facebook, Intagram and Twitter for quick updates and discussions. We are also available on the Telegram. Follow us on Pinterest for thousands of pictures and graphics. We care to respond to text messages on WhatsApp at 8082480136 [No calls accepted]. To contribute an article or pitch a story idea, write to us at [email protected] |Click to know more about The Dispatch, our standards and policies   

About the author

Inder Jit

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment