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THE EXTRA PICTURE
- Does the government’s misuse of funds qualify for a PIL?

Very little can be done about it — if ground reality does not change, the themes have to be revisited, over and over again.

It was a few weeks ago, at the height of the troubles in Lalgarh. The Union home minister was addressing a press conference. He had promulgated an order declaring the Maoists to be a banned organization. The order was pursuant to a colonial legislation refurbished several times in free India. It was mandatory for all constituent states, the home minister asserted, to ban the Maoists following the decision of the Centre. Every other state where the Naxalites are active has, he mentioned, already done so and he had suggested to the West Bengal chief minister to follow suit. A journalist chipped in: the Left Front in West Bengal did not approve of the imposition of such a ban in the state. The home minister was at his legalistic best: the Left Front, he interjected sharply, was not the government of West Bengal and he hoped the distinction between party and government would be appreciated by all concerned; there is a rule of law in the country. The home minister’s hint apparently worked like magic. The West Bengal government caved in within a day; it, too, agreed to ban the Maoists. The home minister thereby won his point: the government is a separate entity from the party — or the political combination — which forms the government.

If the home minister is right, this is an outrage: the UPA has formed the government, but its chairperson is no part of the government and there is no warrant for spending public money to propagate her glory. The home minister notwithstanding, propriety obviously does not begin at home.

An insensitivity is abroad. Nobody is apparently the least bothered; what is being referred to here will be taken as akin to a minor infringement of traffic rules to be winked at and forgotten. It is unfortunately much more than that: a persistent, purposive act of misdemeanour. And those guilty of this misdemeanour are various wings of the government of India. Surprisingly, or not at all surprisingly, not even the parties in the Opposition have till now made an issue of government funds thus being spent to sing the praises of the president of the Congress and ex officio chairperson of the UPA. Both perception of, and respect for, democratic norms are evidently lacking in almost every quarter. If some of those now constituting the Opposition come to power, they might not, it is altogether possible, behave any differently, they too might not feel at all squeamish to use public funds to preach private causes dear to them.

What still puzzles is the rationale behind this kind of gross misuse of authority when hardly any need exists for doing so. The Congress is a very very rich organization. A proposal in this year’s budget — making political donations an allowable deduction from tax liability — would make it even richer. The Congress adores the personality cult as well as the principle of dynastic reign. In a democratic milieu, it has every right to try to disseminate its beliefs. It can comfortably spend a few hundred crore to blanket the television channels and the print media with dollops of evocative prose and poetry describing the marvels its president has accomplished and is going to accomplish. Why then indulge in an act which is hardly in the genre of absent-minded snaffling of office stationery such as paper, pins, and ballpoint pens and suchlike for domestic use? The felony involves deliberate misspending of sizeable State funds. An attitude of mind seems to be at work: might is right, since we are in power, we will do whatever we have the urge for, even if it be in gross breach of both propriety and legality.

India, periodic international surveys suggest, is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This may be correct, or may not. Thanks to examples set at the top, the nation is fast progressing to a point where the distinction between propriety and impropriety is getting obliterated in public perception. Political leaders are considered role models; when role models take to cutting corners, cutting corners becomes the ‘in’ thing for the lay public. And once venality is crowned king, things sooner or later tend to get out of control; the citizenry, liberated from the code of morality, learn to march on: from minor pilferage they graduate to bolder, nastier forms of criminality.

Birds of the same feather flock together. No voice will conceivably be raised in Parliament against the blurring of distinction between party and government in advertisements being splashed in newspapers by, for instance, the Indian Oil Corporation. But is there not genuine ground for a public interest litigation on the issue before the Supreme Court, or the nation’s highest judicial authority, suo motu, for looking into the matter?

Or is it that nothing will happen, we are too far gone a case?

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