Monday, 30th October 2017

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‘Between Congress and BJP, Congress is the lesser evil’

Lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan tells Sonia Sarkar that the BJP-Sangh establishment poses a threat to Constitution and country

By téte à téte - Sonia Sarkar
  • Published 22.10.17
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Illustration: Suman Choudhury

Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan is not known to mince his words. Today is no exception. "The biggest issue in the country today is the communal fascist agenda of the government," he says.

We are in his cramped office in Lutyens' Delhi, on the third floor of the New Lawyers' Chambers, looking onto the facade of the Supreme Court across the street. Bhushan, who is known for his untiring judicial jousting, has just wrapped up a discussion with some activists from Chhattisgarh. It's a case of a mining company ignoring the rights of forest dwellers in the northern parts of the state.

A question about the current goings-on in the country - mob lynchings, the killing (or silencing) of journalists and rationalists - has triggered this outpour. He continues, "It is a criminal gang that is running this country today... They are openly doing things that are serious offences under the Indian Penal Code, such as abusing and threatening people with violence and rape on social media. They want to intimidate people who are questioning them." All the while his expression is of utmost calm, his voice soft, his tone even. If there is anything at all that betrays the intensity of his outrage, it would be his eyes. He narrows them while he speaks.

Bhushan himself has had a taste of intimidation, often backed by the powers. A few months ago, when he tweeted that Lord Krishna was a "legendary eve-teaser" - he was actually cheekily critiquing UP chief minister Adityanath's decision to employ anti-Romeo squads to ensure safety of women in the state - he faced an avalanche of criticism. His exact comment, "Romeo loved just one lady, while Krishna was a legendary eve-teaser. Would Adityanath have the guts to call his vigilantes Anti-Krishna squads?"

Bhushan was called "anti-Hindu" and "anti-national". Protesters belonging to the Hindu group, Sudarshan Vahini, defaced his Noida house with ink. An FIR was lodged at Lucknow's Hazratganj police station against him for hurting religious sentiments. Eventually, he apologised.

"That was also an instance of the fascist atmosphere that has been created," says Bhushan. "You cannot say anything even mildly critical about gods or those considered gods. Many people are saying [Narendra] Modi is our God, and if you say anything against him, I will kill you."

He insists all such threats are supported by the central government, which in his view does not subscribe to the constitutional values of secularism and the fundamental right to freedom of speech. "If they [the BJP] get two-thirds majority in 2019, then they might remove secularism and socialism from the Constitution," he warns.

Two years ago, on Republic Day, the BJP government had issued an advertisement that quoted the Preamble of the Constitution thus: "We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign democratic republic..." The words "socialist" and "secular" had been omitted. That led to a bit of a furore. Later, the information and broadcasting ministry tweeted saying it was done deliberately to "honour" the founding fathers of the Constitution. The words "socialist" and "secular" had been added to the original Preamble in 1976.

Bhushan says all these instances of fascism are orchestrated by the larger saffron family or the Sangh Parivar. He alleges that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent body of the BJP, has been enabled a grip on cultural and research institutions of the country and is now making inroads into the judiciary. Without naming anyone he adds, "They have appointed as judges in high courts and the Supreme Court those who were earlier members of the RSS."

Does that mean the judiciary is going to kowtow to the state? It is already doing so, says Bhushan. He cites the Birla-Sahara case, wherein the Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by him to probe two business houses in a pay-off scandal. It had been alleged that politicians belonging to Congress and BJP had been bribed by the Aditya Birla Group and the Sahara Group. "It was an utterly absurd judgement where it refused to investigate the case, thus going against all past laws laid down by the same Supreme Court," says Bhushan, who runs a Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Public Interest Litigation.

Bhushan is the insider outsider. He has always been critical of the judiciary like his father, former law minister and Supreme Court lawyer Shanti Bhushan. Bhushan Senior had once moved an application in the apex court, accusing eight former chief justices of India of "corruption". Prashant Bhushan has filed many public interest litigations (PILs) against India's top industrialists. Last year, he took on Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries Limited over 4G spectrum allocation. This year, he filed a lawsuit against the Adani group and other mining companies for allegedly inflating coal and equipment prices to siphon money from India.

In 2016, a Supreme Court bench questioned the credentials and authenticity of the PILs Bhushan has been filing at regular intervals. Not that it deterred him in any way.

Currently, Bhushan is taking special interest in the case involving BJP president Amit Shah's son Jay, whose business has reportedly recorded a 16,000-fold increase in turnover in a year's time. Amit Shah has filed a Rs 100-crore defamation suit against the journalist who wrote the exposé and the news portal - The Wire - that published it. "This defamation suit is a way to intimidate the media and those questioning the dubious transactions," says Bhushan.

Threats, intimidation and attacks on freedom of speech are some of the things that define this government, he says. Others would be job losses, price rise and farmers' suicides.

Why then is there no public outcry? How does the BJP keep winning election after election? Bhushan seems to think the ruling party's denouement has begun. "They have been inept in managing the economy, have made huge blunders - demonetisation and implementation of GST. They are rapidly losing support." He cites the recent students' union elections in Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University; in both places the BJP-affiliated students' outfit, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, was defeated. "The youth are disenchanted with the BJP."

The other indicator, according to him, is social media. "Ten per cent of the country's population is on social media - even if you say that it's the upper crust of the society, it is quite clear that public opinion has shifted quite substantially."

And the alternative to the BJP would be? Pause. Bhushan agrees there is a problem, but soon turns to praising Rahul Gandhi. "He is more energetic now. He is travelling around. If he is able to put together a team of newer younger leaders, then Congress will hopefully revive..."

But he would say that; after all, his family and the Congress go back a long way. A little bit of steel creeps into his voice. Bhushan says, "My family parted with the Congress in 1969, when the party split. But if I had to choose between the Congress and the BJP, Congress is a lesser evil."

Talking of alternatives, we cannot help but ask him about his own Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stint. He, along with Yogendra Yadav, had helped found the party and ran it till they were suspended by AAP boss and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal for alleged anti-party activities.

Bhushan admits electoral politics is not his cup of tea, but not before he has had a go at Kejriwal. "He is undemocratic; doesn't have principles, no interest in understanding the issues of the country and he is willing to use unethical means to achieve his ends."

This year, Bhushan, along with Yadav, co-launched a political party - Swaraj India. "Here, you remain true to your principles and take up issues that are entirely in public interest."

But can power politics and public interest ever go hand in hand? Perhaps he is right to say politics is not quite his cup of tea.


tétevitae

1977: Bhushan joins IIT Madras, but quits after one semester
Completes his law degree from Allahabad University. In between, goes away to Princeton in the US for a brief while
1983: Starts practicing as a lawyer in the Supreme Court. Known to fight for civil liberties, human rights and environment issues, and expose corruption in high places
1990: Writes a book on the Bofors scandal — Bofors, The Selling of a Nation
Among his most talked about cases are 2G scam, Radia tapes, Coalgate and iron ore mining scams. Has argued 300-plus PILs to date
Known to be against the death penalty and use of violence against Naxals; wants AFSPA revoked in Kashmir
Threw his lot behind the India Against Corruption movement launched in 2010. Was among founders of the Aam Aadmi Party
Following his expulsion from AAP in 2015, co-founded Swaraj Abhiyan with Yogendra Yadav