Raising new bogeys

Raising new bogeys

The opposition to NCTC is a manifestation of partisan politics for collateral gain and not a cogent platform for better governance.

Two ‘crises’ that rose to a crescendo of opposition and media fury last week concerned government’s alleged ‘decisions’ to curb the powers of the Central Election Commission and further to ‘undermine federalism’ by moving to establish a National Counter-Terrorism Centre.

These are prime examples of national frivolity with sections of the media setting up a bogus agenda by reading all manner of sinister conspiracies into ‘facts’ that could have quite easily been investigated and put in perspective for rational consideration and debate.

First, on February 21, leading 24x7 channels and newspapers got hold of a secret  agenda note for a GOM meeting the following day “to consider measures that can be taken by the government to tackle corruption.’ How did this confidential cabinet committee paper leak and who leaked it and to what end? Everything seems to leak selectively with impunity and immunity -- CAG reports, commission of inquiry reports, SIT reports, you name it –and is published/broadcast with a bias that grabs the headlines, often out of context, and focuses debate on non-issues at the cost of the main thrust of document at hand. Initially subjective pronouncements in turn tend to thwart objective debate as the facts are not as sensational as the myths created around them.

This kind of media-Opposition hype tends to feed on itself and hijacks cool deliberation and stymies decision making. The cry of freedom of expression is then mouthed to justify discussing complex and delicate issues in the marketplace through the intermediary of all manner of busybodies. This is a dangerous tendency that could make India ungovernable.

No decision had been taken or implied that grant of statutory powers would curtail the CEC’s jurisdiction in favour of the government. These statutory powers could well be exercised by the CEC itself, an option supported by T S Krishnamurthy, a former CEC. Consider an example. In Punjab, as many as 201 candidates who stood for election in the January 30 Assembly poll have responded to Election Commission notices admitting having paid broadcast channels or newspapers for election coverage. They have now reportedly agreed to file these ‘paid news’ outlays as part of their election expenses. Other cases are being investigated.

Is this sufficient punishment to stamp out a rampant evil in which the media, election candidates, political parties - and still others in other cases – subvert elections, the law and freedom of expression to undermine democratic governance? The only other power the CEC has is to refer such cases to the tax authorities to follow the money trail on both sides and take action in case of default. However, were the model code to have statutory backing, exemplary punishment could be awarded both to the guilty candidate and his/her party and to the channel or newspaper concerned. Penalties could extend by law to disqualification of the candidate for seven years, a fine on both the party and media outlet equivalent to 10 times the outlay on ‘paid news.’ Will the CEC be weaker and the elections less credible for such a reform?

Threat to federalism

Next, take the bogey about the threat to federalism from the government’s move on the NCTC? The NCTC was sought to be established by executive order under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967, and made a wing of the Intelligence Bureau. It is possible the government did not consult all concerned or early enough.

After ‘federalist’ protests by seven chief ministers, the prime minister asked the home minister to conduct a fresh round of consultations to establish a broad consensus. The essential point, however, is that countering terrorism cannot be left to individual states. Intelligence gathering and analysis, investigation and liaison with foreign agencies in cases of cross-border crime must be coordinated and calibrated across state jurisdictions.

The case for a central authority is patent as virtually all CMs have admitted. The existence of a NCTC will not militate against the police powers of the states. Even in dealing with the naxal movement and insurgencies, it has been found necessary to have a unified command by whatever name so that dangerous elements do not slip through discrete and, sometimes, discordant jurisdictions.

This arrangement can perhaps be tidied up but basically has no bearing on federalism. A number of CMs have in this case come together in a misalliance, based on mistaken premises, in order jointly to confront the Centre. This is a manifestation of partisan politics for collateral gain and not a cogent platform for better governance in the name of injured federalism. 

Two others issues last week merit attention. First, the Supreme Court had harsh words for the Centre for unconscionable delays in disposing of mercy petitions. An 11 year delay in one case had led to the condemned prisoner suffering a ‘slow death’ every day. A norm should be laid down that any mercy petition not decided in three months should be taken as affirming the death sentence. Delay has politicised the matter in cases such as that of Afzal Guru.

The second relates to the former civil aviation minister’s daughter and family demanding to fly business class Bangalore-Male-Bangalore by Air India. The airline thereupon felt compelled to switch to a bigger plane both ways to accommodate these VIP passengers, resulting in over 100 sets remaining unfilled. AI Board members and civil aviation top brass and their families have cost this highly pampered national airline dear even as its losses mount. Such freebies must end. Pomp must yield to performance.