Speaker of the Lok Sabha Sumitra Mahajan questioned the ban and urged that the matter be “resolved amicably”.
When a trader converts his outfit, on his tax consultant’s advice, into a limited company, he does not acquire the culture of corporate governance. Likewise, emulating the Westminster model, with all its trappings, does not ensure that the conventions of the parliamentary system will be respected and the norms of public office observed.
India was treated to a revolting example of this on March 23. A Shiv Sena member of Parliament, one Ravindra Gaikwad, slapped a 60-year-old Air India ground staffer in Delhi 25 times with his slippers. He had boarded a Pune-Delhi flight with a business class ticket, only to find that it was an all-economy flight.
The next day, he appeared on TV boasting, “I hit him with slippers. That’s what Balasaheb (Bal Thackeray, founder of Shiv Sena) has taught us: whoever does any mischief, you should hit them hard below the ear.”
The reaction to this despicable behaviour says a lot about today’s political culture. Five airlines rightly decided to blacklist him unless he apologised. He refused to do so. The issue was raised in both Houses of Parliament. Speaker of the Lok Sabha Sumitra Mahajan questioned the ban and urged that the matter be “resolved amicably”.
The civil aviation minister, Ashok Gajapathi Raju, a man of class, came out in flying colours. He told Parliament, “I never in my wildest dreams thought an MP will get caught in such an incident. Violence of any kind can be disastrous.”
He was concerned with propriety as well as flight safety. However, support for the MP came from diverse parties and a protest was held in his constituency.
Such behaviour is fairly common. One MP brandished a gun to intimidate a toll booth employee. As Union minister, George Fernandes, a former trade unionist, refused to allow himself to be frisked at airports. He was a minister and, therefore, above the law.
A notorious incident from half a century ago reveals the deep-rootedness of the ministers’ arrogant assumption that the law is for the people to follow, not them.
Two ministers in the Uttar Pradesh government intentionally violated a prohibitory order under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure on December 12, 1967 in Delhi. They willingly admitted this to the Union home minister, Y.B. Chavan, when he met them later.
Not content with this deliberate violation, they proceeded to propound and act upon a doctrine that is subversive of the very fundamentals of the rule of law.
“No government should treat political leaders and ministers like this.”
The next day in court, it was the same story; one insisted on being given a chair.
“You probably know we are ministers,” he told the magistrate, who very properly replied, “You are here as an accused.”
These arguments run counter to the very concept of the rule of law, which the great jurist Dicey propounded in classic terms. “Not only that with us no man is above the law, but (what is a different thing) that here every man, whatever be his rank or condition, is subject to the ordinary law of the realm and amenable to the jurisdiction of ordinary tribunals.” Unfortunately, the UP government, far from dissociating itself from these ministers’ actions, chose to defend them. Half a century later, that trait still persists.
Speaking in Parliament on December 15, 1967, Chavan said, “The time has come when we must have some sort of conventions as to what ministers should or should not do.”
Conventions take time to form and are a tricky affair. Why not pass an ordinary law under Articles 102(1) and 191(1e) of the Constitution, disqualifying persons convicted of any such offence from membership of Parliament and the state legislatures?
But legislation is an imperfect remedy. It is the political culture of the rulers’ superiority that is at the heart of the problem.
Only last month in Punjab, ministers voiced their resentment at being asked to discard the red beacons atop their cars. The VIP waiting rooms at airports extend their facilities generously. Industrialists and businessmen enjoy them freely.
Chavan’s plea for a code of conduct was a typically distracting manoeuvre. The ministers had violated a law, not a convention.
The time has come to formulate a code of conduct for ministers and legislators — not only for their edification, but also for public authorities to read the riot act to them in the event of transgressions and for their masters, the people, to hold them to account.
On April 7, Ravindra Gaikwad expressed his “regret” in a letter to the civil aviation minister, not, as he pointedly emphasised, to his victim. The minister directed Air India to lift the ban, which it did. Shiv Sena is a member of the coalition led by the BJP.
By arrangement with Dawn