Why MPs and MLAs want to jump the queue?

“I am a second time MP. I have completed my ninth year in Parliament. How can they say that they were not able to recognise me?” An agitated BSP MP Ashok Kumar Rawat, who first entered Lok Sabha in 2004 at the age of 29 years, thundered before a Parliamentary panel last September. The panel was hearing him on his complaint against Jet Airways that it did not accord him at Bangalore airport the “desired facilities and courtesies” that a lawmaker is entitled to.

Popular, he is in his constituency and there could be no doubt about it. Rawat won a second term with a margin of 23,292 votes from Mirsikh, the birthplace of mythological figure Maharishi Dadhichi who gave his bones to Gods to make the deadly ‘Vajra’. Dadhichi’s ultimate sacrifice was the theme used by artist Savitri Khanolkar when she desgined country’s highest gallantry medal Param Vir Chakra.

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Rawat may not be a modern Dadhichi. His profile does not put him in the gallery of infamy like many in Parliament and Assemblies. He has assets worth just Rs 19 lakh and no criminal cases. That is incredible news from a second-term MP coming from Uttar Pradesh! His attendance in Lok Sabha is 86 per cent and participated in 42 debates besides asking over 800 questions. But isn’t this arrogance of power that he feels himself important and believe that people should know him across the country? Hasn’t this young MP fallen into the same trap his elders in politics had stooped into by believing that politics means privilege? His and the recent case of RJD chief Lalu Prasad raise a series of questions on the propriety of lawmakers utilising privileges at a time they as a class are being targeted for their actions that do not conform to the perception of common man.

Prasad is now allowed to continue to stay in a bungalow allotted to him as an MP, five months after he was disqualified as a lawmaker for being convicted in fodder scam. The central government, which has off late earned the common man’s wrath, has turned compassionate (!) that it accepted his plea that if allowed to stay, his wife Rabri Devi could continue to get treated at AIIMS and his grand children’s education at a posh school Sanskriti is not disrupted.

Why are our MPs and MLAs so touchy? Why do they need to jump the queue? Why a man of modest means be fussy about not getting a VIP lounge in an airport or why a disqualified MP be allowed to continue in his bungalow? Why a former MP should continue to avail facilities for which he is not entitled to?

In its report tabled in Parliament on February 21, the Parliamentary Committee on Violation of Protocol Norms and Contemptuous Behaviour of Government Officers with Members of Lok Sabha, found fault with the way the airlines treated Rawat. The MP had not stopped there and sought that he was a victim of bias against Dalits. But the panel was clear that no such violation took place and threw his allegation in the dustbin. The panel also noted that the denial of desired assistance to Rawat was due to his incomplete booking record. The airline had apologised for the treatment meted out to the MP.

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Rawat’s complaint led to five meetings of the panel and another by the Civil Aviation Secretary with airlines in December last year to ask the operators to adhere to the guidelines in dealing with VIPs at airports. Later when media reported about the fresh move, the Aviation Ministry was at the receiving end of criticism.

One cannot be blamed if he wonders whether India could have avoided the downgrading by the US aviation regulator if it had moved with the same speed with which the Ministry scrambled to address the concerns of MPs — within a week after the Secretary appeared before Parliamentary panel he called the meeting with airlines. It is not the MPs alone even some retired top officials of Aviation Ministry enjoy privileges at the airports. The problem arises when our lawmakers and policy pundits give preference to their privileges rather than issues concerning the sector.

Rawat, being a frequent flier, is entitled to certain freebies even if he is not an MP. In this case, he was not fighting for the consumer but massaging his own ego. His fight was for a privilege he could not avail after he did not fill up his form intimating that he is an MP. A slip by him led to a complaint and subsequent five meetings of a Parliamentary panel, which has senior members like JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav and senior BJP MP Ananth Kumar as members.

In Prasad’s case, it is not human compassion but political and electoral compulsion that came into play. Does a common man get such kind of a compassionate treatment from the governments? We have seen numerous times that the system being circumvented to serve the purpose of the powerful. Only recently, the Supreme Court reiterated that lawmakers’ privileges do not give them a licence to attain immunity on anything and everything.

The problem is that the lawmakers, once elected, fall into the same trap and become part of the same rotten system they ought to change. They are supposed to make life easier for common man but they end up making their own life easier. You may differ with Rahul Gandhi on everything but for this – power is poison. When will our lawmakers understand that power could be poison?

(The article appeared in Deccan Herald on March 11, 2014)

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Credibility crisis stares at government on Lokpal issue

Travelling for work is not taxing for Justice K T Thomas even at the age of 77 but on March 3, he felt it is not worth to embark on a 3,000 km journey from his hometown in Kerala’s Kottayam and waste several days in Delhi at government expense. In 377 words, the former Supreme Court judge summed up why he felt so and told V Narayanasamy, Minister of State in Prime Minister’s Office that he was withdrawing his consent to head the Lokpal Search Committee, which would recommend names to the Prime Minister-headed Selection panel for final appointment.

Thomas changed his mind within days as the 85-year-old eminent jurist Fali S Nariman, who on February 27 sent a terse letter, chose not to be part of the panel citing that the government restricting the panel’s mandate would result in the “most competent, the most independent and the most courageous” getting overlooked. The government wanted the Search panel of eight members to restrict their search to the names provided by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) and could not consider any names. The old men, with a combined experience of 119 years in law either as an advocate or a judge, did not find this a prudent exercise and rocked the boat, putting a spanner in UPA government’s plans to appoint a Chairperson and members in the anti-corruption ombudsman ‘Lokpal’ before it terms end in May.

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(Justice K T Thomas)

Controversies, delays and hiccups are not new for Lokpal, which became a reality after 51 years when then independent MP Dr L M Singhvi, father of Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi, first mooted it. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had asked the senior Singhvi in jest, “to what zoo does this animal belong”, when he introduced the Scandinavian concept of ombudsman. History says Singhvi who indigenized the nomenclature to Lokpal on the insistence of Nehru.

After being signed into law on this New Year after nine aborted attempts in Parliament in 46 years, Lokpal appeared so near but the government faced opposition soon within a fortnight when it sought applications for being members in the ombudsman. Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley shot off a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying the DoPT cannot invite applications, as it was the prerogative of the Selection Committee to lay down the rules and procedures. Jaitley was of the view that the move was against the spirit of Lokpal Act. “The very idea of retiring or sitting judges of the highest court having to move applications for a post-retirement assignment is repugnant to the dignity of the office that they have held. Retired judges who lobby with the establishment with their CVs compromise their self-respect and dignity. A job-seeking judge may not be the best person to be appointed as a member of the Lokpal,” he wrote to the Prime Minister. Singh dismissed the criticism and said the advertisement was brought out to ensure that the ombudsman is established at the earliest. It was not the end but the beginning of another round of confrontation.

The second opportunity came soon at the time of selecting the fifth member, an eminent citizen, for Selection Committee. The four others are Prime Minister, Lok Sabha Speaker, Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha and Chief Justice of India or his representative were to select the fifth member. Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj objected senior lawyer P P Rao’s name for the fifth position in the panel claiming that he was a “Congress loyalist”. She suggested several names like Nariman and Soli Sorabjee. She was said to be even agreeable to names like former Chief Justice M N Venkatachaliah and senior lawyer K K Venugopal. But Singh was adamant that only Rao could be considered and got the stamp on his appointment. BJP cried foul with Jaitley accusing Singh of damaging the institution of Lokpal even prior to its appointment.

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(Fali S Nariman)

With fifth member of its choice in and brushing aside opposition to the process, government moved ahead to constitute a search panel following a recommendation from the Selection Committee and sent letters to eight members on February 21. In between, government also finalized rules and regulations for the implementation of Lokpal Act. Six days later, Nariman served the first volley saying the procedure was flawed. The government has said that the Search panel has to restrain themselves to the list provided by it and that it cannot alter the list by adding any name. In effect, it meant that the Search panel had to just prune the list provided by DoPT and forward to the Selection Committee. This seriously crippled the mandate of the Search panel and Thomas, after hearing about Nariman’s views, sought a copy of the rules to check whether the scope of the Search Committee has been curtailed.

Finding out that the panel has nothing much to do, Thomas wrote to Narayanasamy for the second time in a week’s time, “I wonder why there should be a Search Committee at all, much less, the arduous work to be undertaken by the members of such a Committee when the Selection Committee itself can decide on who should be the members of Lokpal.”

The government move was met with opposition from several quarters, including Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which in its earlier avatar during Anna Hazare agitation has reignited the demand for Lokpal. AAP said the entire issue proves beyond doubt that the Congress-led UPA government is trying to appoint individuals convenient to it in a desperate bid to render the Lokpal as a weak and ineffective institution. Hazare’s close aide Kiran Bedi said the Lokpal Act is sound but it is not in clean hands. Congress, however, sought to downplay it saying, where is the question of government being embarrassed? Giving or not giving consent cannot be linked to government. These are private decisions. People can say yes or no for many reasons. How you can blame government for this?

What Swaraj or Jaitley could not do through a series of letters and interventions, Thomas and Nariman managed in just 557 words in two letters. They put a huge question mark on the manner in which the government was moving ahead with the appointment of members of the Lokpal. The Act may serve a noble cause but the government at least appears as half-hearted in realizing the goals and in between twisting the arms.

(An edited version appeared in ‘Spotlight’ of Deccan Herald on March 9, 2014)

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