The end of immunity for the privileged is approaching

The end of immunity for the privileged is approaching

By M.D. Nalapat | 10 July, 2011

In times past, royal families used to intermarry, thereby creating new alliances. These days, the preferred marital amalgam contains elements of business, politics and administration. Marrying off one of the daughters of a businessman to an IAS officer and the other to the son of a super-rich industrialist needs to be followed by the wedding of the only son with the daughter of the Chief Minister. Even better, one's dependent nephew ought to be married off soon afterwards to the daughter of the Leader of the Opposition, so that all bases get covered. Sensible families know that money, power and links to the civil service are each essential if one is to get the extra attention that can catapult a business above that of its competitors.

This columnist has met the fabled Dhirubhai Ambani only a few times, all at Delhi during 1981-84. The frequency of the Ambani visits indicated that Dhirubhai, at least, was aware that looking after the "Governance Factor" was critical to the success of his business. Minor matters such as actually running a company could be left to underlings. Not so the cultivation of goodwill among the mighty.

By all accounts, his sons have imbibed the wizardry of their parent, and during the time when they were a single unit, dominated policymaking almost as much as Dhirubhai had in his prime. To the relief of rival business groups, the two brothers were soon at each other, thereby weakening both. In a land filled with accommodative pols, the Ambani brothers — united — may have been able to choose the Prime Minister of India in 2009, had fate not intervened in the form of a separation, first of their businesses and later of their nuclear families.

Manmohan Singh is unlikely to have been the Ambani choice, but at least till the early period of 2010, matters seemed under control for business groups. The CAG report on 2G and the ones that are now in the pipeline are signs that something is happening in Lutyens' Delhi that has not been witnessed since Jayanti Dharma Teja and his attractive wife were given "a little help" by Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s. Since that time, unless one was as reckless as Ramakrishna Dalmia (who considered himself the equal of Nehru, if not his superior), one got along in tranquillity. After all, the system in "free" India scarcely differs from the imperial past. The "servants of the people" who took over from the British retained colonial laws, procedures and attitudes that gave them total discretion across wide swathes of national life.

Naturally, laws were only meant to be applied to those not close to authority. The others enjoyed the benefit of immunity. If there was any "undue interest" being shown by an "overzealous official" (i.e. an official zealous in his duties), a phone call from a political secretary to a Cabinet minister, followed by a call from that diligent soul to the CBI or to the CBDT, would set matters right.

Dropcap OnHowever, from the middle of last year, around the time that Sarosh Kapadia got sworn in as Chief Justice of India, such phone calls seem to be losing their effectiveness, when they are getting made at all. How else to explain the incarceration within Tihar jail of politicians and businesspersons known to be close even to top law officers of the Government of India? Or, the very individuals who with their legal briefs can make short work of a case, as they did with Ottavio Quattrocchi? The CBI is only as lethal as the law officers of the Union wish it to be. If these gentlemen are civilised human beings who do not believe in corporal punishment — or any punishment at all — for those careless enough to break a law that ought never to be enforced on those in the Inner Circle, then they ensure that the bark of the CBI (staged for the benefit of television cameras and quickly forgotten in the next news cycle) soon gets followed by a toothless soft bite. Indeed, the Kapadia Revolution has still not managed to penetrate beyond the first layer of those within the protection of the immune system formed over a half-century through the societal amalgam of business, politics and administration exemplified in the marriages mentioned above.

In the CWG scam, neither the then Sports Minister nor the Chief Minister of Delhi (whose responsibility, at least on paper, is far greater than that of the luckless Suresh Kalmadi) seems to have even been questioned by the CBI. It remains to be seen if the flames of accountability created under the watch of India's gentle Chief Justice will finally reach them, or flicker out

before getting close. The CBI, after all, is much better at hushing up culpability than in establishing it. But the breaching of the first layer has caused immense disquiet among the rest. They, after all, have paid for the immunity that has been theirs for decades. How dare such ridiculous concepts such as "equality before the law" be allowed to defile such a privilege!

Hundreds of thousands languish in prison, including those who remain undertrials for years, if not decades. However, these do not excite the fury of the Immunes that is daily being witnessed on television screens. After all, "a man is innocent until proved guilty", a process that could take several decades to clear at just the district level. How dare

those who have thus far enjoyed immunity (often at considerable expense and trouble) be put in the same bracket as undertrials without a rupee to their name? However, despite the fury, the privileged are remaining in prison. And for the first time since Joginder Singh managed to prise loose the banking details of Mr Q from the Swiss more than two decades back, the CBI seems to be actually solving a case rather than fudging it.

Will Chief Justice Kapadia be able to ensure an end to the culture of immunity of the powerful that has made a mockery of law in this country, or will the system ensure that his initiative fails? While the odds seem stacked against the CJI, a buildup of public attention and involvement may just be enough to ensure that a few dozen more VVIPs get sent to jail this year, and that too for long stretches. Should that take place, then those who call India a democracy would not be just indulging in wishful thinking.


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