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Every political party is to blame

Perhaps Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was involved in what is called the liquor scam.

Perhaps he wasn’t, and has been framed. Perhaps the central government is telling the truth when it says that the AAP profited massively from the scam and then spent the money on its campaign for the Goa elections.


Or perhaps AAP is right when it says that the central government is using the excise policy case to cripple an Opposition party, even though there was actually no such scam.


   I really don’t know. Do you? And can any of us tell what the truth is until a court of law hears the evidence and decides one way or the other?


   However, regardless of what the court eventually decides, some things need to be said.


   First, the basic principles of Indian democracy that we were all taught in school do not appear to hold any longer. The adage, common to most liberal democracies, that a citizen is innocent until proven guilty, now seems merely old-fashioned and not in any way essential to our system of laws. And ‘bail is the rule, jail is the exception’, which was recently reiterated by the Supreme Court but most often associated with Justice Krishna Iyer, also seems a little outdated.


   Why do these apparently firmly established principles not apply any longer? Well, because successive Indian governments have passed laws (or amended them) so that these principles can safely be ignored.


   Often, the provocation for passing the laws or amendments was a genuine concern: the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, better known as UAPA, updates an early version passed in 1967, but it has been routinely amended again and again as the challenges from terrorism have grown. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government strengthened the Act in 2008 and 2012 and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government amended it once again in 2019 to give wider powers to policemen to designate individuals as terrorists without bothering with any judicial process.


   Likewise, The Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) was enacted by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2002 but substantially amended by the UPA government in 2005, 2009, and 2014. While the original provocation for the law was a global campaign against the laundering of the proceeds of crimes such as drug-running and mafia activities, the law has been interpreted to cover pretty much everything in its Indian avatar.


   This act makes it difficult (if not virtually impossible) for a court to grant bail if the prosecution strongly opposes it. It shifts the burden of proof to the accused and treats statements made to investigating officers as admissible in court. Normally, statements made to the police are inadmissible. Unless a judge believes that the evidence is totally inadequate (which is hard to decide at the bail stage, and which most judges are reluctant to conclude so early in the case), bail is routinely denied.


   The Opposition says that both UAPA and PMLA are being misused by the BJP government, which may be true. But it was the Congress that passed some of the most stringent clauses in these laws when it was in power. So, when these Acts are used against political opponents, let’s not pretend that the Narendra Modi government pulled these provisions out of thin air. Most were already in the books.


  "It is not my case that Kejriwal is hoist by his own petard or that, having levelled so many unsubstantiated allegations himself, he can hardly complain when the same tactics are used against him because Karma is at work."

   Even so, I don’t think that there is much precedent for what the BJP is doing to Kejriwal and others as the election looms. Assume, for the purposes of argument, that Kejriwal is actually involved in the liquor scam. He is not a flight risk. If he was going to tamper with evidence, he has had long enough to do it; the liquor scam arrests have been ongoing for months and months.


   Kejriwal can easily be arrested after the election. Why send him to jail now? It does lend credence to the AAP’s accusation that the BJP is using the central government’s agencies against its electoral opponents.


   This is not an isolated view. When, in the India Today Mood of the Nation poll in 2021 respondents were asked if the BJP government was misusing central agencies, 32 per cent of them said yes. In the most recent Mood of the Nation poll, that figure had increased to 46 per cent. (37 per cent said no and 17 per cent had no opinion).


   However, here’s the thing: it doesn’t make a difference to voters. The same Mood of the Nation poll predicted a landslide for Modi and the BJP. So, a government that wants to use the laws that allow it to lock people up without the nuisance of having to first gather enough proof to convict them has it easy: previous governments have already passed the laws and voters don’t mind.


  That leaves the big question: why don’t voters mind?


   Perhaps you can start by asking Kejriwal. When he ran the India Against Corruption movement (with Anna Hazare as a front man), he climbed to fame by creating hysteria over alleged governmental corruption. The UPA was totally corrupt, he said, and the people had to act against corrupt politicians. New laws were needed to fight corruption. Why didn’t the government just adopt the Lok Pal bill that Kejriwal and his pals had drafted?


   People believed in Kejriwal to the extent that he and India Against Corruption more or less polished off the Congress and cleared the way for Modi. Not that Kejriwal did badly out of it himself. He dispensed with Anna Hazare and most of his India Against Corruption buddies to go on to win the Delhi Assembly election as leader of AAP, the party that emerged out of his so-called anti-corruption movement. His sustained attacks on former Chief Minister Sheila Dixit along with AAP’s sensational allegations caused her to lose her seat and much of her reputation.


   Very few, if any, of Kejriwal’s allegations were ever substantiated. Modi made full use of Kejriwal’s anti-corruption campaign, repeated his allegations, and promised to provide a clean government. Once he was elected, however, the BJP didn’t do much to follow up on these allegations, and the biggest ‘scam’ of that era—the 2G scam—fizzled out after the Modi government failed to obtain a single conviction in the case. Even Kejriwal didn’t do a great deal to substantiate his allegations once they had served their purpose and AAP had won in Delhi. But the perception that all politicians were corrupt was strengthened. People no longer care very much if leaders are put in jail without being convicted of any crime. The public view is: they deserve it because ‘sab chor hai.’ (Everyone is a thief)


   It is not my case that Kejriwal is hoist by his own petard or that, having levelled so many unsubstantiated allegations himself, he can hardly complain when the same tactics are used against him because Karma is at work.


   My point is broader. I don’t think any sensible person can endorse the manner in which the Modi government is behaving with the Opposition in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Nor is it a good thing for the rights of India’s citizens when so many laws allow authorities to lock people up without any real hope of bail: and that applies to the AAP leaders who have spent months in jail as much as it does to anyone else. It is telling that the government had to quickly drop its objections to AAP leader Sanjay Singh’s bail this week after the Supreme Court said that it could not find any evidence that he was guilty.


   But —and this is the important bit—do not make the mistake of seeing what is happening right now in isolation. It is the result of a process that began a long time ago and every political party is to blame. In particular, the Congress cannot evade its responsibility for putting repressive laws and amendments onto the statute books.


   And when it comes to unfounded and irresponsible allegations of corruption, Kejirwal may well be the undisputed champion of the world.


Posted On: 04 Apr 2024 12:30 AM
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