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Vandita Mishra: The Anna Hazare movement has been gaining momentum. In your interaction with MPs, do you see a shared sense of siege because of what is happening right now?
There is near unanimity in the country and amongst parliamentarians that corruption is a national issue. However, there is equal unanimity amongst parliamentarians that the way forward to address corruption is not to call into question the entire constitutional edifice where parliamentary supremacy in the matter of law-making is non-negotiable. In a republic inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, you can’t completely ignore the constitutional means for addressing a national malaise. But you should address corruption in a way consistent with the sanctity of our Constitution.
Coomi Kapoor: Are you saying unconstitutional means are being used? All they are doing is building up public opinion so that parliamentarians take into account the views of the public for this long delayed Bill.
The right to dissent, the right to protest and the right to mobilise opinion is given and it is respected and accepted. This is the reason why Anna and his team are fasting at Ramlila Maidan. In fact, the state is making all arrangements to facilitate the protest. What is an issue is the inclination to put a gun to the government’s head and say this is the Bill that you must legislate into law and you must do so by such and such time irrespective and in derogation of the established procedure of law-making as per the Constitution. How can you, in the name of advancing a laudable national objective, completely negate the permissible means under your Constitution? Now the argument is that we, the people of India, come first in the Constitution, therefore, everything else is subservient to the will of the people. Even with this I have no quarrel. But how do you determine the will of the people? The Constitution ordains that you determine the will of the people after every five years through an election. If you insult the collective judgment of the people of India, you are not advancing democracy. This is my view as a citizen of this country, as a constitutionalist, as a lawyer. The Constitution is intended to be a bulwark against the impulses of transient majorities. Majorities will come and go but the Constitution is supposed to be an enduring edifice.
Dilip Bobb: The general impression is that the government is now employing delaying tactics. How do you convince them that you are with them and not against them?
Let me tell you what this government has done so far: it’s not as if PM made his appeal for the first time last Tuesday–he used every opportunity to say that any peaceful contestation can be the subject of a debate. He has said, let us have a stronger Lokpal Bill based on a larger political consensus. He said he was not against the protest, he was concerned about Anna’s health. But don’t insist on forcing us to do something against the oath of our office. As a duly-elected government, we are voted into power and we want to uphold the Constitution of India. In the parliamentary process of law-making, the Standing Committee is a time-tested process which has produced very good legislation. Today, the atmosphere in the country is such that there is an earnestness to push for Lokpal as an instrument to remove corruption. But to say, do it by tomorrow and discount the Standing Committee procedure, to say that you want a bill to be rammed through in a manner that tomorrow somebody can ask why we have consciously ignored contrary views–that’s where we have issues. The same Constitution that gives me the right to the validity of my views, gives to the other the right to contest those views. But if you insist on deadlines, you are negating the first principle on which this republic is founded. What prevents another group from saying they will sit at Rajpath? If the government starts to buckle on issues of principle, the government will have no right to ask the citizens to comply with the law.
Coomi Kapoor: But the government has buckled, firstly by making Anna Hazare a member of the official drafting committee. Then you said the PM has to be out of the Lokpal and you buckled on that too. There has been a series of retractions from the government which shows that things are not that hard and fast.
There are give and take situations but there has never been a negation of an express constitutional stipulation. There is no bar on the Standing Committee to take into consideration the Jan Lokpal Bill.
Coomi Kapoor: But earlier the government had said it was not possible?
The difference is in what was being said by the Anna camp–that the Standing Committee should discuss “our” Bill. The process of law is that the Cabinet prepares a format which goes to Parliament, and that Bill is presented to the Standing Committee. There is no precedent for anyone insisting that the government takes only their Bill; if the government agrees with their Bill, it can present it to the Standing Committee as its own–there is no difficulty in that. But to tell us to disown our own Bill and to discuss only ‘your’ Bill amounts to law-making being outsourced to people who, as per the Constitution, cannot be the lawmakers. And the day you make a deliberate departure from the expressly stated and incontrovertible stipulation of the Constitution, you violate your oath of office. No government worth its name can consciously negate the fundamental principles of the Constitution.
Maneesh Chhibber: You said you can’t outsource lawmaking to anybody. So what is the National Advisory Committee (NAC) doing?
NAC is doing nothing other than submitting its suggestions. Name one law which NAC has insisted upon, the manner in which Anna Hazare is insisting. I cannot recall NAC ever insisting on anything.
Pradeep Kaushal: Why did you outsource drafting of the Lokpal Bill to the committee where half the members were from civil society?
It was a limited decision made in order to ensure that their views were fully taken on board. There is no constitutional or legal bar to not associate somebody with the draft. The bar is on the Bill we eventually bring before Parliament. After the drafting committee came to a conclusion, the ministers accepted some of Hazare’s suggestions and did not accept others. Then they presented the Bill to the Cabinet, which, in turn, endorsed it to make it a government Bill. That was presented before Parliament. We associated with these people purely to make sure that they had a full say in giving their inputs while the members of the government in that committee were formulating the draft.
Vandita Mishra: People say the government’s case is being made on too many legal, technical grounds and there is not enough of a political input.
Political issues are responded to politically as the PM has done last week. It is a political response of a sensitive and responsive PM who is concerned about the way things are developing, about the health of Anna Hazare. Legality and politics are not mutually exclusive to the extent that lawyers are able to backseat constitutional and legal issues and package them as part of the political response. I don’t see any inconsistency or mutual exclusivity between the two
Vandita Mishra: But what is the single largest source of hostility to the government?
My sense is that people tend to think we are not with them in the fight against corruption. As time has gone by and as the debate is put in the correct perspective, it is clear that this is a choice between the right ends and the right means. People are tending more and more to agree with our perspective. The letter PM wrote and the public appeal made earlier to Anna Hazare to give up his fast were intended as a decisive signal to bring the national discourse back from an idiom of confrontation to an idiom of rational discourse and dialogue.
Maneesh Chhibber: Would you agree that Anna Hazare’s arrest was a wrong move?
I have already said that if I had been in-charge of the situation on the ground, I would not have sent Anna Hazare to Tihar jail. I think the right course would have been to notify a place like a guesthouse to detain him on a preventive basis. I think things moved too fast and these nuances got lost.
Dilip Bobb: What is your personal stand on the issues of the Lokpal covering PM, the bureaucracy and the judiciary?
Constitutionally, it is completely impermissible. How do you expect the government to consider these demands? On the judiciary: we have a constitutional procedure to discipline judges. As for PM, he has repeatedly said he has no problem being under the ambit of the Lokpal. But it is not as if this PM is the only PM under contemplation. What is under contemplation is the office of the PM, who has been described as the keystone of the Cabinet arch. And if the keystone is disturbed, the arch collapses. It is my personal view that no prime minister should be subjected to a system of inquiry or prosecution where immediately on the receipt of a complaint, the entire regime is triggered. It is not the absence of laws that have prevented prosecution of PMs. We have had two PMs who have been prosecuted even without the Lokpal. We are being unfair to those honest officers in the government who actually prosecuted PMs and former PMs. It is not because of the absence of laws that corruption in the country is growing, It is because of the general decline in the moral fibre of most people that the country is going down.
Maneesh Chhibber: Very recently, the government removed CBI from under the RTI. Is that probity?
I believe the reason for keeping CBI out of RTI is ensure the integrity of the investigation as the accused can use RTI to get information about what stage the investigation is at, which might destroy the integrity of the investigation.
Raj Kamal Jha: This is hypothetical but if the same debate had happened under UPA-I, do you think you would have been on a stronger wicket than UPA-II under the shadow of CWG and 2G? What role has that shadow played in the current discourse?
I do agree that the atmosphere created in the country with allegations related to 2G and other issues have had an impact, consciously or unconsciously, on the sentiments of the people, and the sentiments of the lawmakers, even the judiciary. In fact, we are all impacted at a certain level–and rationality and objectivity sometimes become the casualty. I saw this phenomenon in the indictment of Justice Sen.
Coomi Kapoor: Did the prevailing atmosphere influence the views of parliamentarians who were not in favour of Justice Sen’s impeachment?
I believe, as a lawyer and not as a parliamentarian, that in a criminal case, two views are possible and if the prosecution has not proved its point to the hilt, the benefit of the doubt must go to the accused. That is not to say that the same principle applies when we have debates on issues such as this in Parliament. The parliamentarians, in their collective wisdom, took a view that the judgment would advance the cause of substantive justice for a cause.
Kaushal Shroff: The Jan Lokpal Bill states that seven members should approve any investigation against the PM, of whom at least four would be judicial members. Wouldn’t they understand the gravity of the issue involved and the repercussions of investigating a PM?
The fundamental issue is the environment in which our democracy operates. The imminent possibility of a mala fide prosecution or investigation into the conduct of the prime minister in the discharge of his extremely critical duties can have the effect of destabilising governments. This is the view that is taken by those who dispute the necessity of the PM in the Lokpal. There are others who believe that there are sufficient safeguards to see an abuse of the law doesn’t take place. If Parliament in its wisdom decides to put the PM under the Lokpal, so be it. But there are two strong views and somebody has to decide which view must prevail. Which is that instrumentality in the scheme of our constitutional order which takes the final call? Parliament, in its collective judgment, where all shades of political opinion are reflected.
Vandita Mishra: Some people in your party say Rahul Gandhi should step into the Anna Hazare negotiations.
Rahul Gandhi enjoys a preeminent position in the party. He has a very incisive instinct on many issues. His counsel is always available to the party. As the Congress general secretary, he doesn’t have to ask anyone before intervening. For all you know, he may be involved in giving his advice in the manner he deems fit. It is his call how to intervene, when to intervene and on what issues to intervene.
Sourabh Jyoti Sharma: Transparency International Report 2010 says the judiciary is the second most corrupt institution in India after the police. Do you want to bring a stronger Judicial Accountability Bill in Parliament?
The Judicial Accountability Bill will be brought before Parliament. The government remains committed to it. There is a broad consensus on it. We need to ensure that there is an adequate mechanism to deal with allegations of lack of probity in the judiciary.
Sourabh Jyoti Sharma: What is your view, as a lawyer, on the collegium system of judicial appointment?
On judicial appointments, the experience has been mixed. I don’t think the collegium system has always achieved the desired results.
Unni Rajen Shanker: Many people are talking for the government in the media. Are you being briefed before you talk?
There is so much information on the issues at hand, we almost drink, eat and breathe these issues. The senior people who go on TV channels do have their own perception of what is required to be said and if there is a doubt in their minds, they are always free to seek clarification.
Vandita Mishra: What is the feedback your parliamentarians are getting from the ground, from outside big cities like Delhi? Do they face the same outrage or is there a distinction to be made?
Nobody disputes that the issue of corruption has caught the imagination of the country. The point of contestation is how does the nation together move forward in a direction that will minimize the scourge of corruption and show that the fundamentals of our body politic are not constantly being eroded by this menace. It is a great tragedy that the current UPA leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh known for their deep commitment to probity in public life should have to bear the brunt in a very unjust and a very unfair manner just because an atmosphere in the country has been created where the responsibility for all that is wrong lies with the government. Look at the series of initiatives the government has taken on corruption: has anyone else take such corrective measures?
When did a serving minister go to jail, when did we send the top bureaucrats to jail? It is said this was done because Supreme Court wanted it to be done. Who went to Supreme Court and asked, through CBI that the Supreme Court monitor the investigations so that the people of India should not think anybody was being protected? We must at least be given credit for vigorously pursuing the cases of corruption. The proof of the pudding is in its eating. Judge me not by what I say but by what I do and this government has taken conscious, purposive and strong action where strong prima facie cases of corruption have been an issue. One more thing; these are the people who have been behind bars for the last several months and whose bail applications have not been granted. As a lawyer I ask myself, is bail the rule and jail an exception or jail the rule and bail an exception? As early as 1977, Justice Krishna Iyer said bail is the rule as it subserves the cause personal liberty and jail in an exception. You must jail only those people who are hardened criminals who can pervert and thwart the course of justice. I sometimes wonder whether someone can be denied liberty merely because the atmosphere is in favour of hanging those without convicting them. At another level, there are proposals that nobody can contest an election if there is a charge of a criminal offense against him. It is said this is the best way to eliminate criminals from politics.
But it is a dangerous path to follow. We have a great law and a great legal architecture but we also know that laws are abused. It is easy to have a false charge against someone in a mofussil town. Years of reputation built in public affairs, a man’s political career can be destroyed. The answer to the criminalization of politics is not in riding roughshod over fundamental principles that are intended to safeguard your liberties and your inalienable rights embedded in the Constitution. Let us not tinker with the fundamental principles of our republic on account of impulses of the moment. All constitutions are designed to secure the nation against intensities of the momentary impulses. If you tinker with the Constitution, you will never be able to restore its integrity.
Vandita Mishra: The burden of your argument is that there is an atmosphere in the country and the government is an unfortunate victim of that atmospehere. Would you not admit to a single mistake the government has made in contributing to this atmosphere? Has the absence of Sonia Gandhi made a difference?
Sonia Gandhi’s absence is deeply felt at all critical moments and even otherwise both in the party and in the government. Her presence, her guidance, her sage counsel and advice has been a great source of strength to the UPA government and Congress. I will be the last person to say this government, or any government, is infallible. There could be a bona fide error of judgment like sending Anna Hazare to Tihar Jail. Governments do make mistakes but as long as they are bona fide and are redressed and corrected, I think the benefit of doubt must remain with the government.
People throw out governments when they don’t find their explanations convincing. The choice is not between a perfect government and an imperfect government, the choice is between a bona fide governance and misgovernance.
Transcribed by Chinki Sinha & Geeta Gupta