June 23, 2021
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Fanning The Fire

"Oye, othe ghar nu aag lagi hai". (Oye, there is a house on fire). "Saanu ki?" (How am I bothered?) "O tuhada ghar hai". (That is your house) "Te pher, tuhanu ki?" (So then why are you bothered?)
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Fanning The Fire
Fanning The Fire

What can one say? What is left to say?

That what happened in the last 48 hours -- to top the dangerous bluff, bluster and brinkmanship that the UPA indulged in since the assembly election results came out on Feb 27 -- was totally unnecessary and avoidable? That instead of taking what the Supreme Court found itself compelled to say with good grace and ensuring compliance with it, we found the UPA indulge first in the sorry spectacle of an all-party meet from which the BJP walked out and then the utterly inexplicable timing of the Lok Sabha speaker's statement asking for a presidential reference to be made to the Supreme Court to seek clarification on separation of powers of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary?

That it brought us perilously close to a constitutional crisis that the country doesn't need, nor want? That what the centre finally stepped in to do today, should have been done long back, much before the Supreme Court came into the picture? That our worthy parliamentarians of the UPA did not dwell on what was responsible for totally upsetting "the fine constitutional balance and the democratic functioning of the state as a whole"?

Perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies that the government decided against it, but would it be too farfetched to charge that the timing of the Lok Sabha Speaker's statement only added, abetted and encouraged the farce in the Jharkhand assembly today? That the Supreme Court interim order was bound to ruffle Parliament was clear the day it was handed out, but couldn't the Hon'ble Comrade Speaker have timed the all party meet and, the kerfuffle which followed, to just a day later?

It was abundantly clear that the BJP-JDU combine had the numbers, but the JMM-led UPA's outrageous behaviour in the Jharkhand assembly was clearly to flout the Supreme Court's order. To say that it was all appallingly handled by the UPA would be the understatement of this year, if not this century.

That the government took so long to get its act together and come out with a clear statement on it after the mockery in Jharkhand is only indicative of the deep fissures and faultlines within this coalition. Leave alone the PM, even the UPA chairperson, evidently, has not only no control over her allies; but she also seems unable to get her own party to fall in line easily. Else would we have had the sight of her party's pro-tem speaker take his cue from the Lok Sabha Speaker, and not from what the Congress party and the government had announced? Couldn't a simple call have been made to him to ensure that he followed the Supreme Court order in letter and spirit, particularly after what the government announced in the morning today about not making the presidential reference after all?

For, after a meeting of senior cabinet ministers at the Prime Minister's residence this morning, which was also attended by the UPA chairperson, the union law minister, H.R. Bhardwaj, had gone before television cameras to proclaim that "as law minister it is my duty to see to it that every order of the Supreme Court is complied with".

For a moment, let's even buy the defence minister's rather disingenuous assertion in the Lok Sabha that there was "no question of central intervention in Jharkhand" and that the government "had nothing to do with the developments there....the Constitution clearly earmarks the jurisdiction of the State Legislature and Parliament ... the expression of confidence or no-confidence is the exclusive jurisdiction of members of the State Assembly... We want the decision should be taken on the floor of the Jharkhand Assembly."

Then why did the central government and its CCPA finally feel the need to move? And why did the home minister feel the need to claim what he did on the PM's behalf? After all, the Jharkhand assembly speaker had only adjourned the house? By that logic, surely there was no need to get into a damage control exercise.

And what about the Congress party? Surely they cannot get away with that line? Surely the party chief, who also happens to be the UPA chief, could at least have reined in her own Congress MLAs? And surely all those rest of the allies such as Lalu Yadav who waxed eloquent on honouring the judiciary could have done something about their own MLAs and tried to "persuade" the JMM chief and the rest of those MLAs of the UPA who apparently left the protem speaker "helpless"? Seems like a clear case of "coalition compulsion". Sonia Gandhi's silence and selective spin from her sycophants to distance her from this sordid mess only shows the desperation to not take responsibility for a badly botched up job.

If it weren't so tragic, one could perhaps laugh at its sheer stupidity, and now that the farce seems to have ended (at least for now, or so one should hope) perhaps one can indulge in the liberty of sharing an old Santa and Banta exchange:

"Oye, othe ghar nu aag lagi hai". (Oye, there is a house on fire)
"Saanu ki?" (How am I bothered?)
"O tuhada ghar hai". (That is your house)
"Te pher, tuhanu ki?" (So then why are you bothered?)

For that effectively was the response from the various constituents of the UPA. Were that it were so simple to be not bothered by it. Because those whose job it is to douse the recently raging fire seemed hell-bent not only on not doing anything to extinguish it, but were also busy fanning it, and preventing anybody else from doing anything about it either.

"Who started the fire?" What a stupid, senseless question, one had wondered, when another Prime Minister asked it in a different context, some years back. As the PM, one expected him to concern himself with dousing and extinguishing that fire first. Such questions, though important, are always best addressed later.

And that is what one expected in the current case of arson. And it doesn't take anything more than common sense to figure this one out. Instinct, even. But common sense does not seem to be all that common. And the Congress party perhaps just wants to go up in spontaneous self-combustion, for it not only lit up these minor fires first in Goa and then in Jharkhand, which could easily have been extinguished by timely intervention from the party's so-called central leadership, with just a few buckets of water, in a manner of speaking, but also fanned it.

Because they were allowed to spread out and somebody pressed the alarm bells, the Supreme Court had to move in as the Fire Brigade. And instead of appreciating that help, at least in alleviating some of the "coalition compulsions", and helping smother the fire out immediately, despite the embarrassment over Goa, we were made to witness an absurd national debate on the diameter of the water-hose to be used, and, indeed, who should be using it. The whole debate in Parliament and in the all-party meet seemed more concerned with shouting about whose job it was to stub it out and when (no, no, March 15, not 10) and how rather than any immediate steps taken to ensure that the fire was put out immediately.

For effectively, what the Hon'ble Speaker of the Lok Sabha ended up in doing was just this - tuhanu ki? - by the timing of his very laboured statement recommending that a presidential reference to the Supreme Court be made, asking for clarifications on the supremacy of the different constituents of the state, viz. the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

Of course, it is a useful and necessary debate. Given the nature of the Supreme Court order, it is is perhaps even an urgent debate.We do need to ask who would guard the guards, as it were, and it does, as the Speaker pointed out, raise serious and grave questions. But on the scale of urgency, it was only as important as someone questioning the length and width of the fire-hose used, and whether it meets the ISI standards or not, and would it not be better, actually, to, er, use bucketfuls of water or sand or some such instead? And in any case, who were the fire-brigade to come rushing when we were ... er, not actually doing anything to douse that fire ourselves? (And, look, those who preach to us were themselves guilty...Does it ring any bell? Do we remember how in 2002, 1984 was invoked? Two wrongs do make for many rights, it would seem)

Obvious questions arise. Shouldn't such debates be had when there are no fires raging? Surely, there's been enough time since 1998 when a similar fire had raged (when the SC had issued a similar order for trial of strength in the UP assembly in what has come to be known as the Jagdambika Pal case). Shouldn't the hon'ble speaker, and all those attending that meeting, have been more concerned, at least in the immediate context, with the fact that such a situation had been allowed to be developed which made this Supreme Court intervention necessary? If the intent was really to seek clarifications about constitutional complexities, and important they indeed are, in abstraction, perhaps a day's delay would not have mattered? Even tactically, then, it would not have been seen as a transparent attempt to subvert first the people's and then the Supreme Court's verdict, had such a debate about making a presidential reference had cropped up after the current impasse over Jharkhand had been settled. If this is what the UPA could come out with after having been stripped of any shard of cover hiding its naked hunger for power, then some very urgent lessons in "damage control" are required, since basic morality, decency and propriety might be difficult to learn.

What do the UPA, the Lok Sabha speaker, and all those in that "all party" meet really think should the Supreme Court have done with Arjun Munda's petition, by the way? Should it have left it to the assembly till March 15, as earlier suggested by the governor, to test Shibu Soren's "majority"? What did they expect as a response to its presidential reference? What do they think was responsible?

It seems well nigh believable that the PM was busy finding ways to get this fire extinguished, and he did have a tough task on hand, given the nature of his various allies, not to mention his own party. One can sense his deep distress, and could even sympathise with him, and the anguish he would have felt, but a distressed PM, no matter how thankless a job he seems to have on hand, is no solace to the country. A PM of good faith, who looks around helplessly, rushing from one fire-brigade to another, for help in dousing a fire that was lit by none other than those who run the party he belongs to, is a sorry sight indeed. And as long as he does not assert his position and authority, one can only see this distress mount in the future, as the fissures in his alliance would deepen with each new assembly elections where UPA allies would be principal opponents. Failing that, one does not really need a highly developed inner voice to be able to conclude, it is only the lady with the inner voice who can do something about the PM's distress. She has to sit down and work out things first within her party and then with her allies.

For the time being, a crisis has been averted.The fire has been doused. But there are still embers that could flare up any time and envelope us all in a raging fire.And it is that which our worthy Parliamentarians ought to now discuss and debate. What if we had a central government which chose not to interfere? And even if they did, what if the Governor or the Chief Minister refused to comply?

For the questions raised by the situation before the central government felt compelled to move in are serious indeed. As would be clear from the clearly divided opinion of the Constitutional experts in the country.As are other pressing questions about the various recommendations made by Sarkaria Commission and many other electoral reforms concerning the role of the partisan governors and their appointments, the role of speakers, and independent members elected to the legislatures.

Yes, it is true that the Supreme Court has, for some time, been doing the jobs of (1) the executive (2) the legislature and (3) the lower judiciary. It is not a desirable situation, but it wouldn't be happening if 1, 2, and 3 did their jobs. And the reference here is not just to crimes of omission in terms of abdication of duty but also those of commission, where authority is blatantly misused. An honest debate and fixing some of this would surely help "the fine constitutional balance and the democratic functioning of the state as a whole" that the Lok Sabha Speaker is so justifiably concerned about.

But, perhaps, one wastes one's breath in stating the obvious over and over and over again.

Perhaps it is best to leave Shibu Soren out of it all, though he too seemingly heard his "inner voice" today. It seems to be spreading like an epidemic, which is perhaps not something to be mourned. When asked whether he was asked by the governor to resign, he said, "I listened to my conscience and resigned, despite knowing that the NDA did not get majority in the assembly election."

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