Muslim quota: A 'lawless' minister is undermining democracy

Democracy is a fledgling concept in India – less than a hundred years old, and democratic institutions and conventions are in need of nurturing and strengthening.

If this is applied as the yardstick, there are reasons to be concerned with the recent developments surrounding the promise of a sub-quota for Muslims made by the Union law minister, Salman Khurshid, while campaigning for elections to the Uttar Pradesh state Assembly. This promise was given on January 9, 2012. It was clearly designed to improve the chances of Congress securing Muslim votes.

The promise made by Khurshid was in violation of the model code of conduct drawn up by the Election Commission. The Commission immediately took up the issue with Khurshid, but alarmingly, Khurshid was defiant and unrepentant – an attitude that persists, more or less. After the controversy erupted, he stated again, publicly, that he will carry on with his campaign even if the Election Commission hanged him.

Shortly after making the campaign promise to which the Commission objected, Khurshid stated boastfully in a television interview that his ministry controlled the Election Commission – to the extent of approving the travel expenses of its members. This was hardly a veiled threat, and it prompted the Commission to write to the prime minister complaining about Khurshid’s efforts to undermine the authority and independence of the Election Commission and restricting it from performing its lawful duties.

The Congress party showed vacillation, possibly deliberately, before making a rather general statement that “all Congressmen should speak as per the norms of public life and the law of the land.” This statement came on February 12, 2012, more than a month after the speech of Salman Khurshid. It is a poster case of ‘too little, too late.’

The prime minister, as is his habit, is yet to make any statement, either on the campaign promise made by Salman Khurshid in violation of the model code or the complaint the Election Commission lodged about  Khurshid’s statements on the control of the Commission by the law ministry he heads.

On February 14, 2012, two days after the ambiguous statement made by the Congress party,  Khurshid wrote to the Commission expressing ‘regret’ and stating a ‘personal commitment’ to ensure that such situations do not recur. In assessing his sincerity, we must consider all the actions of Khurshid and not merely the wording of his letter to the Commission. In any case, Khurshid finally expressed remorse for his infraction.

Unfortunate precedent
Unfortunately, this is not the end of the matter. Beni Prasad Verma, another Union minister, reiterated the promise Khurshid made earlier about quota for Muslims and expressly dared the Election Commission to act against him. Arguably, Khurshid has provided inspiration to his party men by setting an unfortunate precedent.

An issue thrown up by the developments is whether these actions of Congress ministers are one-off events, or do they have larger implications for the country, its democratic culture and the rule of law?

India takes justifiable pride in being described as the world’s largest democracy and complemented for its ability to conduct peaceful and reasonably fair elections on a scale unthinkable in most other parts of the world. The machinery of the government of India, acting in coordination with the states, manages the show with considerable efficiency, notwithstanding the generally low reputation for the quality of government agencies.

In discussing elections in India, we cannot forget the contribution of T N Seshan, former chief election commissioner. He, more than anyone else, almost single-handedly cleaned up the process and made the Election Commission a truly effective and impartial overseer. In this, Seshan displayed true leadership and force of personality in accomplishing a noble objective.

Elections are the lifeblood of democracy and maintaining their integrity must be an important priority. Having achieved considerable progress in this difficult area, it would be regrettable if India compromises on the integrity of the electoral process and fails to preserve the momentum. It is quite unfortunate that a major protagonist in this is Salman Khurshid. It would be ironical, if it were not tragic, that the law minister of the country has chosen to remain defiant. The law minister’s behaviour displays scant respect for the rule of law.

One would expect individuals such as Khurshid, himself a lawyer and the grandson of a late president of India (Zakir Hussain), to set an example in promoting the rule of law and better standards in public life.

Instead, he has chosen to set a bad precedent by undermining these ideals. Such episodes and the ambivalence of the Congress party in dealing with them can have serious consequences for democratic institutions and conventions, indeed the democratic culture, that are slowly and painfully taking roots in the country.

By now, there is sufficient evidence of the weak character of the present leadership of the country. Rampant corruption at all levels and lack of organisational discipline in the government tell the tale eloquently. With about two years of office left for the present government, it is not clear whether we can expect any meaningful or decisive action that can contribute to the development of healthy political and constitutional traditions and conventions.

(The writer is an assistant professor of Common Law at University of Ottawa, Canada)

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