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Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Monday, March 24, 2008
Contempt of court and the media
Ritu Tiwary, Aju John
The problems raised by trial by media involve a tug of war between two conflicting principles free press and free trial. The freedom of the press stems from the right of the public in a democracy to be involved on the issues of the day, which affect them. People cannot adequately influence the decisions that affect their lives unless they can be adequately informed on the facts and arguments relevant to the decisions. Much of such fact-finding and argumentation necessarily has to be conducted vicariously, the public press being a principal instrument. This is also the justification for investigative and campaign journalism.
At the same time, the right to fair trial, uninfluenced by extraneous pressures is recognized as a basic tenet of justice. The Constitution of India and the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 contain provisions aimed at safeguarding the right to fair trial. Restrictions are imposed on the discussion or publication of matters relating to the merits of a case pending before a Court. A journalist may thus be liable for contempt of court if he publishes anything which might prejudice a fair trial or anything which impairs the impartiality of a court to decide a cause on its merits, whether the proceedings before the Court be a criminal or civil proceeding.
In relation to freedom of speech and expression, there are three types of contempt of court:
(a) One kind of contempt is scandalizing the court itself;
(b) There may likewise be a contempt of court in abusing parties who are concerned in causes in the court;
(c) There may also be contempt in prejudicing mankind against persons before the cause is heard.
However, the above classifications are by no means exhaustive. Very broadly speaking, the conduct may refer to anything that tends to bring the administration of justice into disrepute or to obstruct or interfere with the due course of justice.
Sensationalized journalism has also had an impact on the judiciary. For example, in upholding the imposition of the death penalty on Mohammed Afzal for the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, Justice P. Venkatarama Reddi stated, (t)he incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.
A media trial began almost immediately after Afzals arrest. Only one week after the attack, on 20 December 2001, the police called a press conference during the course of which Afzal incriminated himself in front of the national media. The media played an excessive and negative role in shaping the public conscience before Afzal was even tried.
Similarly, S.A.R. Geelani, one of Afzals co-defendants in the Parliament attack case, was initially sentenced to death for his alleged involvement despite an overwhelming lack of evidence. Large sections of the Indian media portrayed him as a dangerous and trained terrorist. On appeal, the Delhi High Court overturned Geelanis conviction and described the prosecutions case as at best, absurd and tragic.
Protection of the rights of the accused
Taking exception to the media interviewing witnesses and commenting on cases during trial, the Law Commission has recommended changes in the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 to protect the rights of the accused and ensure the proper conduct of trial in its latest report titled Trial by Media, headed by Justice M Jagannadha Rao. It has also emphasised the need to sensitise journalists through proper training in certain aspects of the law. What is going on in the media may indeed be highly objectionable. Merely because it is tolerated by the courts, it may not cease to be contempt, the Commission noted in the report. The Commission said: In our country the lack of knowledge of law of contempt currently shows that there is extensive coverage of interviews with witnesses. The panel said that this is highly objectionable even under the current law of contempt if such interviews are conducted after the chargesheet is filed. We are of the view that there is considerable interference with the due administration of criminal justice and this will have to remedied by Parliament, the report said.
In its report submitted to the Government, the Commission said, Today there is a feeling that in view of the extensive use of the television and cable services, the whole pattern of publication of news has changed and several such publications are likely to have a prejudicial impact on the suspects, accused, witnesses and even judges and in general on the administration of justice. The report said, according to our law, a suspect/accused is entitled to a fair procedure and is presumed to be innocent till proved guilty in a court of law. None can be allowed to prejudge or prejudice his case by the time it goes to trial.
It said that publications, which interfered or tend to interfere with the administration of justice would amount to criminal contempt under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 and if in order to preclude such interference, the provisions of that Act impose reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech, such restrictions would be valid.
The report noted that at present, under Section 3 (2) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 such publications would be contempt only if a chargesheet had been filed in a criminal case. The Commission has suggested that the starting point of a criminal case should be from the time of arrest of an accused and not from the time of filing of the charge sheet. In the perception of the Commission such an amendment would prevent the media from prejudging or prejudicing the case.
The United States and Australia both have stringent provisions regulating media trials, and the solutions that are envisaged to the damage caused to the right to a fair trial of the accused range from sequestering of the judge/jury for the duration of the trial, to transferring trials to more neutral jurisdictions, to declaring mistrials and acquitting accused persons, and in extreme cases, even barring further criminal complaints against an accused whose character has been so tarnished by media scrutiny that it would be impossible for him to be given a fair trial. In India, the Press Council of India does have regulations concerning reporting of sub judice matters, but a violation of these norms will only call for sanction against the media organization and will not necessarily ensure justice to the accused. At present, in India, the impossibility of a fair trial for an accused can possibly be a ground for transfer of cases to another jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has come down on trials by media, especially in dowry cases, where public sympathy is clearly with the victim and her family, and outpours of public outrage against the errant husband and his family easily find place in local publications.
In M P Lohia v. State of West Bengal, Justice Santosh Hegde of the Supreme Court felt compelled to note the disturbing factor. The case concerned the death of one Chandni in February, 2002 and the complaint in this regard was registered, the investigation was in progress and the application for grant of anticipatory bail had been disposed of by the High Court of Calcutta when an article has appeared in a magazine called Saga titled Doomed by Dowry written by one Kakoli Poddar based on her interview of the family of the deceased. Justice Hegde remarked that all material narrated therein are those that may be used in the forthcoming trial, and was convinced that they would certainly interfere with the administration of justice.
The need for openness
There is a concern that the above regulations may result in the restricted reporting of important cases. In the interests of ensuring fair trials, the media in UK for instance have restricted the reporting of terrorist trials for long periods. Conviction following a fair trial is a major weapon to combat terrorism.
The case with family courts is also similar. There is a feeling that the workings of, and the decisions made in family courts are too secretive. The argument runs that without increased openness there can be no confidence in the workings of the family court, and therefore no confidence in the process or the outcomes. To a consultation in the UK on the issue, the Newspaper Society wrote that:
We fully support the proposal that the media should be allowed to attend ALL family courts as of right and the principle of a general presumption of openness must be the established if public confidence and accountability is to be achieved. The role of the media as representative of the public particularly in relation to attendance at court proceedings is well established and understood.
Media groups argue that the solution lies in letting journalists in as of right to act as a proxy for the public. To restrict them would be to deny the public and mean that miscarriages of justice could go unrecognised and unreported.
The contempt law is as old as Common Law itself. The Court, however, will act only where justice is jeopardized by a gross and/or unfounded attack on the Judges, where the attack is calculated to obstruct or destroy the judicial process. The judiciary cannot be immune from criticism. Judges and courts are alike open to criticism, and if reasonable argument or expostulation is offered against any judicial act as contrary to law or the public good, no Court could or would treat that as contempt of court. It is only the scurrilous abuse on a Judge in his character as a Judge, which would be actionable under the Contempt of Courts Act.
The freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary are two of the most important indices of democracy in a country. It is essential to preserve both. Pliable press and subservient judiciary are the first step in the process of extinguishment of democratic lights.
(Ritu Tiwary is a student at HNLU in Raipur. Aju John is an editor at Indlaw.)
 The Constitution of India, arts. 129 and 215.
 Bathina v. State of Madras, (1952) SCR 425.
 Trial by Media at http://www.hrdc.net/sahrdc/ (March 3, 2008).
 See, Trial by Media: Free Speech v. Free Trial Criminal Procedure (Amendments to the Contempt of Court Act, 1971), 200th Law Commission Report, 2006.
 Supra note 24.
. J. H.R. Khanna, Freedom of Expression with particular reference to Freedom of the Media, (1982) 2 SCC (Jour) 1.
|A newspaper article on the inordinate delay in hearing the bail pleas of the Godhra case accused angers the Chief Justice of India.|
K.G. Balakrishnan, the Chief Justice of India
IN a recent article published in the Malayalam magazine Mathrubhoomi, Teesta Setalvad, a crusader for justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots, pointed out that 84 of the accused in the case involving the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27, 2002 – which triggered the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat – have been languishing in Gujarat’s jails. Their bail pleas have not been heard yet, even though the Central Review Committee had ruled in May 2005 that the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) with which these accused have been charged with was inadmissible in their case.
She asked: “The fact that many of them are ill, one is blind; the fact that their families have been reduced to penury and indignity while the main accused and masterminds of the post-Godhra carnages not only roam free but rule Gujarat by action and word, raises the niggling, troublesome question once again. Discriminatory justice. Can a discriminatory system of justice be viable in principle given what our Constitution espouses?”
In October 2003, Hindu victims of the Godhra incident filed a case for transferring the Godhra trial out of Gujarat. In response, the Supreme Court stayed the Godhra trial in November 2003. Matters relating to bail for the accused, especially in view of the decision by the POTA Central Review Committee, were brought before the Supreme Court. The court permitted the accused to apply for bail, while hearing the matters relating to the findings of the Central POTA Review Committee. Seven separate applications have been filed by the Godhra-accused for bail. Setalvad lamented that despite six or seven hearings, the matter was not seen fit to be heard by the Supreme Court.
The article also carried a chronology of the Godhra bail matter before the Supreme Court, which was self-explanatory:
On February 22, 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Godhra accused could file bail applications before the Supreme Court. The matter being considered was the Report of the POTA Central Review Committee that had held that the provisions of POTA could not be applied to the Godhra case, after the trial court had framed POTA charges against the accused. On April 10, 2007, bail applications were filed in the Supreme Court.
On December 12, 2007, Justice G.S. Singhvi, one of the Judges before whom the case is listed, refused to hear the matter because he had heard the POTA Review Committee matter earlier. The Chief Justice then directed that the matter be listed before a three-Judge Bench in the third week of January.
On January 16, it was shown as appearing before Chief Justice of India (CJI) K.G. Balakrishnan, and Justices R.V. Raveendran and J.M. Panchal. Since Justice Panchal hails from Gujarat and his brother is a Public Prosecutor for the State of Gujarat, representatives of the bail-seekers raised objections. The court agreed and directed that the petition be posted before a Bench without Justice Panchal at the earliest.
In her article, Setalvad asked: “Can no questions be asked about the systems in operation in the Supreme Court of India? Which matters get automatic priority and which do not? Which matters suffer because of the delays and interim orders of the Supreme Court? Is there no prioritisation of cases where issues of personal liberty, denial of basic fundamental rights, mass crimes and impunity to the rich and powerful are concerned? If we can ask no questions, we will receive no answers. The time has come to question the basic accountability procedures of the highest court in the land. Has the Supreme Court of India lost its soul and is it turning a blind eye to cases relating to fundamental rights violations? If so, where then do we turn?”
On February 19, when the Godhra bail case came up for hearing, Setalvad’s article drew sharp criticism from the Chief Justice. The CJI asked all the lawyers appearing for the Godhra-case-accused whether they were involved in anyway with Setalvad, and if so, that the Bench would not like to hear those petitions which had anything to do with her. Sensing the mood of the Bench, counsel immediately distanced themselves from Setalvad. The CJI said the innuendo in the article was unwarranted as the Benches were fixed and the dates were given through computer and not manually. “The article is shameful, to say the least,” the Bench said.
“There are some articles in the newspapers which are educative, and there are some which we ignore. But what is this article indicating? That the matters are not getting posted and that the court is being unfair? This article is not in good taste,” the CJI said. However, the Bench resumed hearing the bail petitions after senior counsel for the accused, Harish Salve, said that the court should treat the article with the contempt it deserved.
The CJI’s anger over the article and its author, expressed in the open court, without giving her an opportunity to explain her position, dismayed civil society. A group of eminent persons from all walks of life pointed out in a statement that the CJI had unfairly singled Setalvad out for the article, even though many others shared her concern about the consequences of judicial delays.
The furore over Setalvad’s article would have served its purpose, if it helps to focus attention on the huge pendency of cases in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of India enjoys the widest jurisdiction (wider than what the highest judiciary in any other country enjoys), including the original jurisidiction to grant relief in case of violation of fundamental rights. And the right to move the court itself is guaranteed as a fundamental right. The mounting and unmanageable number of pending cases has characterised this transformation of the court over the years. The Annual Report of the Supreme Court for 2006-07 says that the pendency of cases, which was 58,794 as on January 1, 1994, came down to 44,819 cases as on September 30, 2007. But this statistics conceals more than what it reveals.
A table carried in the Annual Report shows that if one takes 1994 as the benchmark – when computerisation was introduced in the court along with other innovative methods such as grouping of cases to reduce arrears – the real breakthrough was achieved in 1996 and 1997. In 1996, the pendency was 23,246 cases while in 1997, it was 19,032. However, the pendency began to rise sharply from 2004; it rose to 30,151 cases from 26,750 in the previous year. In 2006, the backlog increased to 44,819 cases from 34,481 cases in 2005. Since then, the backlog has only kept rising. The total number of cases instituted in 2006 also went up by more than 11,000 over the previous year. The Annual Report does not shed any light on the reasons for this phenomenal rise in the number of instituted and pending cases in the course of just one year.
Following the Supreme Court’s recommendation, the government increased the Judges’ strength in the Supreme Court from 26 to 31. But it may not be an adequate response to the issue of mounting arrears. The Law Commission, in its 125th Report in 1988, said: “The Judge strength of the Supreme Court has been revised on four different occasions and at no point of time the revised strength has made any impact on the arrears.”
The Law Commission had then suggested timely filling up of vacancies and mandatory continuance of retiring Judges in office until their successors are appointed. The Supreme Court has two vacancies under the current strength of 26, both having arisen on July 8, 2007 (when Justice B.P. Singh retired), and August 27, 2007 (when Justice P.K. Balasubramanyan retired). Apparently, the appointment process devised by the Supreme Court itself has not been very effective in filling vacancies in time.
The Law Commission also recommended effective use of the retired Judges of the Supreme Court who settled down in the capital after retirement. Retired Judges, minimum 12 in number, may be requested to sit in four Benches, each of three, to take up old civil and criminal appeals, it suggested.
The Commission also recommended that the Supreme Court be split into two: Constitutional Court and a Federal Court of Appeal. The Federal Court of Appeal could sit in Benches in North, South, East, West and Central India to reduce litigants’ costs.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Chennai (PTI): AIADMK workers have been instructed by their chief Jayalalithaa not to have any political dealings with her former close confidant, N Jothi, who resigned from the primary membership of the party.
Piqued by denial of a ticket to contest the biennial elections from Tamil Nadu, N Jothi, a retiring member of the Rajya Sabha, resigned from the party on Saturday and also handed over all the files concerning her various cases, in which he was her advocate.
In a release here on Sunday, Jayalalithaa described as "unethical professional practice," by Jothi, his decision to withdraw from 113 cases, including those of hers and many of her partymen.
The release said that Jothi walked out of the Supreme Court while appearing for Jayalalithaa in a case on March 12 when the party announced N Balaganga as the Rajya Sabha candidate, and immediately boarded a flight for Chennai.
Jothi is already embroiled in a controversy, wherein he is charged by the CB-CID of causing losses to the Government by flying to New Delhi on nine occasions to attend the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal proceedings in 2003, though he was not the Government counsel then.
He also stayed at the Tamil Nadu House in Delhi sans paying rent, transportation and telephone charges, all working upto a few crore rupees.
Also read the related stories
March 17th, 2008 - 9:20 pm ICT by admin
Chennai, March 17 (IANS): AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha Monday asked her party legislators not to associate with Rajya Sabha member N. Jothi, whose term ends this month, sparking speculation that he may be joining the ruling DMK. Jayalalitha’s statement, addressed to her party workers, comes after she denied Jothi another term in the Upper House of parliament, and instead nominated N. Balaganga.
Jothi, a leading advocate, shot to prominence as Jayalalitha’s counsel for the innumerable corruption cases filed against her by the DMK regime in 1996-2001.In many cases, she was acquitted and in many others there was not sufficient evidence to nail her.
Jothi is said to be close to DMK leader Arcot N. Veerasamy and his family.He joined the AIADMK in 1996 and was appointed secretary of its advocates’ wing. He rose in the party rank and the AIADMK chief nominated him to the Rajya Sabha in 2002.
In recent years, Jothi has been embroiled in several controversies.
The crime branch of the state police is investigating a charge against Jothi of “causing losses to the government by flying to New Delhi on nine occasions to attend the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal proceedings in 2003, though he was not the government counsel at the time”.
He is also accused of staying at the Tamil Nadu House in New Delhi and not paying lodging and boarding charges, transport and telephone bills, totalling a few millions of rupees.
Jayalalitha has accused Jothi of “unethical professional practice”, saying his decision to withdraw from AIADMK 113 cases, against her as well as others from the party, was condemnable.
Jayalalitha’s statement pointed out that Jothi walked out of the Supreme Court while appearing for her in a case March 12 when the AIADMK announced N. Balaganga’s name for Rajya Sabha membership.
Returning to Chennai, Jothi resigned from primary membership of the party, fuelling speculation that he was joining the DMK.
Also read the related stories in THE HINDU as follows:
Jothi accuses Sasikala of 'dominating' AIADMK
Chennai (PTI): Two days after resigning from the AIADMK for having been denied a second term to the Rajya Sabha, advocate N Jothi on Monday accused Jayalalithaa's close aide Sasikala of "dominating" the party.
Stating that the AIADMK had become a "holding company of Sasikala&Co," Jothi said only God can save the three- decade old party if it continued to be under the influence of Sasikala.
The open revolt by Jothi, who is also Jayalalithaa's counsel in several cases, comes a day after the party chief in a statement denounced him for returning 113 case files, which pertained to her, Sasikala and party functionaries.
Jothi's action was a breach of the professional ethics of lawyers, Jayalalithaa had said.
Addressing a crowded press conference here amid tight security, Jothi said Sasikala's grouse against him stemmed from a tussle he had with her nephew T T V Dinakaran, also a Rajya Sabha MP.
He alleged that Dinakaran abused him and even threatened to "eliminate" him on April 3, 2007, following his move to merge Jayalalithaa's disproportionate wealth case and London Hotel case, in which he was also involved.
His counsel did not extend cooperation to this move as they thought it would go against their interest, Jothi said.
Following this, he wrote a 19-page letter to Jayalalithaa and offered to quit from appearing in the cases. However, Jayalalithaa prevailed upon him to continue and assured that she would take necessary action, Jothi said.
Jothi claimed that Jayalalithaa had also played down the role of Sasikala, saying "she was only meant for housekeeping and maintenance of accounts and there was no need to give her respect more than that".
He said the decision to quit the party and from appearing in party cases was taken ten months ago itself, but he continued following Jayalalithaa's assurance.
The MP, whose term ends early next month, admitted that he was expecting a second term in the Upper House and was hurt when the party nominated N Balaganga for the seat.
"I was at Poes Garden (Jayalalithaa's residence) on March 10 and 11 and held discussions about a particular case. But, I was not informed about their decision to field Balaganga," he said.
Stating that Dinakaran had succeeded in "conspiring" against him, Jothi said he would rejoin the party only if Jayalalithaa came out of Sasikala's influence.
No one in the party liked Sasikala's dominance. It would be good for Jayalalithaa and the party if she ended the "unholy friendship" with Sasikala, he added.
He also denied Jayalalithaa's charge that he abruptly walked out of the Supreme Court in the midst of arguments in a case related to her, on coming to know that he was not given a renomination.
"How can I continue as their lawyer when they do not give audience to me to discuss the cases. Only vaastu experts and astrologers are being given audience," he said.
Jothi said he had returned all the case files with full details.
Also read the related stories in THE HINDU as follows:
“Priority for equitable growth”
|Bhopinder Singh assumes additional charge as Puducherry Lt. Governor|
— Photo: T. Singaravelou
CHANGE OF GUARD: Bhopinder Singh taking oath to assume additional charge as Lieutenant Governor at Raj Nivas in Puducherry on Saturday
PUDUCHERRY: Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands Bhopinder Singh, who assumed additional charge as the Lt. Governor of Puducherry on Saturday, said that his priority would be to accelerate the economic growth of Puducherry with equitable opportunities to women and weaker sections.
Shortly after the swearing-in ceremony held at Raj Nivas, he said, “It will be my endeavour that Puducherry shows the way to the rest of the country as a model of inclusive growth.”
Stressing the need for implementation of programmes within the specified timeframe, he said, “I believe in time-bound completion of projects.” The same strategy had been adopted for Andaman and Nicobar Islands also, he pointed out. “I am sure that with the [cooperation of the] Chief Minister and his Cabinet colleagues, we will accomplish all the objectives in the given timeframe.”
Asked if he would face any difficulty in allotting time for the administration in the two Union Territories, Mr. Singh said he had accepted it as a challenge. “I am sure that I will be able to devote equal time to come here and attend to all issues.”
He expressed happiness over Puducherry’s performance in education, healthcare and welfare sectors, and its attaining a high level of human development indices and peaceful civic life for its people.
Mr. Singh stressed the need for giving high priority for development of infrastructure such as airports, roads and bridges and setting up of special economic zones to promote investment in non-polluting industrial development, tourism, Information Technology and IT-enabled services. “Skill development and vocational education should receive particular attention to meet the manpower requirement of these sectors,” he said.
He was of the view that tourism infrastructure should be further augmented to make Puducherry a long-haul destination. Describing fishery and dairy development as “promising sectors,” he called for steps to promote deep sea fishing and fish processing facilities.
Though agriculture should continue to be a priority area, in the context of declining area under cultivation, the focus should shift to improving agricultural productivity through techniques such as ‘precision farming’ in order to optimise the use of inputs and ‘crop diversification’ as per market demand, he said.
Thanking the Chief Minister, Ministers, legislators, officers of the administration and the public for according him a cordial welcome, Mr. Singh said, “I look forward to their cooperation and support for creating a better and brighter future for the Union Territory and in making it the number one State in the country.”
Mr. Singh took the oath of office administered by Chief Judge D. Krishnaraja. Chief Secretary Rakesh Behari read the Warrant of Appointment. Chief Minister N. Rangasamy, his Cabinet colleagues and legislators felicitated the Lt. Governor. He also inspected the Guard of Honour presented by the police.
© Copyright 2000 - 2008 The Hindu
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
|In the last 10 years, Sonia Gandhi has presided over the Congress consolidation; can she now initiate change and innovation in a party mired in status quo and unworkable organisational culture?|
In two days’ time, Sonia Gandhi will have completed 10 years as the president of the Indian National Congress. A remarkable feat of political longevity by the standards of leadership matrix in non-authoritarian systems. It was on March 14, 1998 that she gave the go-ahead to her managers to stage a constitutional coup against the then Congress president, Sitaram Kesri. On the morning of that fateful day, the Congress Working Committee asked Kesri to step down in her favour. The same evening, Ms Gandhi arrived triumphantly at the All India Congress Committee headquarters on 24, Akbar Road, and accepted the CWC invitation to take over the party in the name of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
To Ms. Gandhi’s credit, she had declined the crown on two previous occasions. Within days of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the CWC offered her the president’s post, as the logical political successor to her husband’s legacy. She declined, with grace and becoming dignity. Again, in May 1995, she wisely refused to lend her prestige and name to the break-away Tiwari Congress even though the Narayan Dutt Tiwari-Arjun Singh faction had let the world know that it was revolting against P.V. Narasimha Rao in her name. She advisedly stayed neutral and unaligned in the self-destructive factionalism; later when the time came, she quietly backed the Kesri interregnum after the Narasimha Rao innings came to an abrupt end; but then gave in to entreaties from her courtiers to take over after a totally unprepared Congress came a cropper in the 1998 Lok Sabha election, even though it was precipitated by her loyalists on the issue of alleged DMK involvement in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.
In December 1997, Ms Gandhi unilaterally announced her decision to campaign for the Congress in the 1998 poll. In essence, she offered herself as the new vote-catcher for the party. She distinctly failed to set the Ganges on fire. The carefully nurtured mystique was shattered but her coterie still managed to pile up the blame on the old, antiquated party president and insisted that it was about time she formally wore the crown. The build-up to the March 14, 1998 denouement was unsavoury and unbecoming of India’s oldest political party. Family became the sole currency of political legitimacy.
Arguably, the very nature of her takeover came to define Ms Gandhi’s leadership style. First, because Kesri was accused of not being able to keep the party together, she arrived at the AICC with a very heavy sense of noblesse oblige. Carry everyone — good, bad and ugly — along. Over the years, Ms Gandhi has admirably fulfilled the role of a party unifier, though she allowed Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma to part company. Nor has she been able to persuade Mamata Banerjee till this day to come back. She remains an indisputable symbol of unity and consolidation in the party.
Secondly, she unprotestingly allowed herself to be reduced to an electoral talisman. The original argument had to be sustained: only a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family could fetch vote for the party across the many diversities of caste, creed and class. Till this day, she remains locked in that trap.
Third followed from the second: she could never make demands on the partymen in terms of ideas and ideology; only individual loyalty was preferred in exchange for a putative Midas touch. This “win-votes-for-us” burden has also prevented her from locating her ideological anchor in visionary ideas. The Congress, in turn, remains a happy stranger to innovative ideas and policy literacy.
Back to March 1998. Within nine months of taking over the party, Ms Gandhi seemed to have galvanised it. The Congress scored a hat-trick, winning the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. The aroma of the Sonia magic was thick and heady. She found herself encouraging Subramanian Swamy to broker a rapprochement between her and AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa; three of them combined to bring down the Vajpayee government. The result was another Lok Sabha election within 14 months.
At the end of the 1999 Lok Sabha election, the Congress was in the same old thick soup. The Sonia magic stood totally dispelled. She was the party president and there was no one else who could be blamed for the Congress failure to cross even the 1998 tally. Worse, she had allowed herself to be projected as a prime ministerial aspirant, an unseemly outbreak of ambition, which, in turn, unleashed a fierce and, at times, ugly debate over her “foreign origin;” the end result was a massive decline in public esteem. The very Nehruvian secular state she had undertaken to rescue from the communalists was back in their grip. The bogus deshbhakts were back with a bang, and the Congressmen were staring at a long, bleak political winter.
The sobering experience of the 1999 defeat proved a kind of shock therapy for Ms Gandhi; the electoral setback did wonders for the evolution of a mature political persona. Gradually, she began to develop a healthy scepticism of all the durbaris who used to throng 10 Janpath and ritually reaffirm that the country was eagerly waiting to shower its affection and love on another standard-bearer from the Nehru-Gandhi family. She came to terms with the party’s vastly reduced political estate and depleted electoral fortunes.
Disengaging herself from the non-functioning dynastic mantras, Ms Gandhi quietly began the process of reaching out to non-Congress parties and players with a view to breaking up the three-decade-old tradition, tactics, and habits coalesced under anti-Congressism. As conceptualised and finessed by Ram Manohar Lohia, anti-Congressism was an effective anti-strategy against an immovably strong and entrenched Congress; the anti-Congress sentiment acquired a cutting edge because, first Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi loomed large and looked firmly ensconced in the Congress leadership slot.
Displaying acumen, Ms Gandhi was able to roll back this legacy of personal bitterness and political animosity towards her family, cobbling alliances, paving the way for the Congress’ return to power at the Centre. The UPA could not possibly have come to pass without her success in building bridges and forging relationships with those very parties which once were at the core of anti-Congressism.
Then May 2004 happened. In an inspired moment, Ms Gandhi dramatically renewed her moral authority when she renounced the prime ministerial crown. She answered magnificently and gracefully the Sushma Swarajs and the Uma Bhartis who threatened an ugly civil war in case a woman of “foreign origin” took over the government’s reins. She converted the moment into a triumph of nobility over pettiness aforethought. Unlike her courtiers, she understood her limitations and chose to work within them. Having anointed Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, she initiated the Congress into a new experiment in shared authority.
At the end of a decade, Ms Gandhi remains the most central political figure in the country. No Congress president in recent memory has exercised so total a control over the party as she does today; yet she is not able to break out of the straitjacket of leadership style she walked into 10 years ago.
Essentially, she is content to be a happy and cheerful conservative, unwilling to shake up the moribund party. She had blessed two wholesome innovations in the Indian party system: the Manmohan Singh Committee on party finances, and the Ram Niwas Mirdha Election Authority arrangement. She could not summon the courage to match the creative potential of these two initiatives; instead, she heeded the (self-service) advice of the corner-cutting, old guard not to stir up things too vigorously.
After 10 years at the helm, Ms Gandhi remains a prisoner of her own image as a benevolent patriarch, always willing to accommodate and reward the bogus sycophant and family loyalists. Unable and unwilling to take harsh decisions against non-performers, she has in effect delayed the much-needed realignment of the Congress with a changed and changing India. The Congress is constantly distracted from its obligations as the natural party of governance.
If the Congress has to continue to perform its historic role as a party of the Indian state, it cannot postpone forever a transformative change — a new organisational rhythm, inclusive and transparent functioning, and a new generation in charge of harnessing the hopes and aspirations of this young country. Having presided over the Congress with wisdom, Ms Gandhi needs to summon from within the sagacity and foresight to put slowly in place an exit strategy.
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