Premchand’s sense of justice vs. Rajya Sabha’s low cunning

In the daylong debate on Lokpal Bill, parliamentarians were called to perform the role of panch parmeshwar, but they acted like a bunch of bullies


Ajay Singh | December 30, 2011

Panch Parmeshwar, a short story by Hindi literary stalwart Munshi Premchand, captures the soul of Indian sense of justice. Its protagonist, Jumman Shaikh, is full of anger for his friend-turned-foe Alagu Chaudhary. Incidentally, he is chosen by the villagers as the ultimate arbiter (panch parmeshwar in Hindi) in a feud which involves Chaudhary, who fears Shaikh will settle personal scores. However, when on the fateful day, Shaikh sits on the seat of justice, the humble villager disadvantaged by rusticity and lack of education rises above petty partisanship and presents a shining example of an inherent sense of justice in us. He delivers a verdict which favours his enemy.

The master storyteller, whose understanding of Indian society was way sharper than most of us, had spun this unique narrative around Indian sense of justice to beat home the point that our society is inherently averse to low cunning. That did not reflect in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday.

In the daylong debate on Lokpal Bill, parliamentarians were called to perform the role of panch parmeshwar in the highest lawmaking forum, the temple of our democracy. Sadly, most of them behaved like a bunch of bullies, doggedly and shamelessly pursuing their self-interests, prejudices and their unjust avocations. It was a spectacle of low cunning at its nadir.

The copyright of Thursday’s high drama must rest with the government. That the Lokpal Bill was nothing more than a red herring to deflect the heat was evident in the manner in which the legislation was drafted. Legal eagles who form the backbone of the union cabinet are certainly not naïve to have left the bill so vulnerable as to face stiff legal scrutiny in the supreme court.  Leader of opposition Arun Jaitley, an eminent lawyer himself, has rightly pointed out that the gaps are deliberately left in the bill to make it constitutionally untenable.

But the government seems to be working on its own agenda of taking the wind out of Anna’s sails. Crisis managers of the government seem to be gloating over the fact that the Anna’s fast in Mumbai proved to be a flop show while their skullduggery cleared the first hurdle when the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha. However, that euphoria proved to be short-lived when they found the opposition more than a match in their lowly games in the Rajya Sabha. While Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati refused to bail out the government, the opposition cornered it by moving hundreds of amendments to the bill knowing it full well that the move would torpedo the bill. In what could be explained as a unique convergence of interests, practitioners of realpolitik had to take it out on 74-year-old Anna Hazare — identified by a group of vocal intellectuals as somebody who sticks out like a sore thumb to India’s otherwise  graceful, dignified and thriving parliamentary democracy.

Having settled scores with Anna, political parties would tend to believe that it will be business as usual. In their perception, Premchand’s discovery of an inherent sense of justice in our society must be nothing more than the search of a chimera by an idealist. But, precedents prove them wrong.  Given the political history of India, the tallest political leaders and the strongest political formations have met their nemesis when they unashamedly exhibited their low cunning as a strategy for survival. India’s most adored prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru faced a strong current of public disapproval when he sacked the first communist regime in Kerala in 1959. Though Nehru was sceptical about the decision, his daughter Indira Gandhi who had then assumed the role of the party president prevailed. Nehru’s democratic credentials got a serious dent as all grounds used for the dismissing the state government were too flimsy to carry any conviction.

But Nehru’s stature and his contribution to nurture democratic institutions were far greater to let this folly undermine his credibility and standing in people’s eyes. Subsequently, Indira Gandhi turned out to be too brazen in dealing with the political discontent. In 1971, she was instrumental in rigging the West Bengal polls which was preceded by toppling of non-Congress governments through subterfuges and conspiracies. Though she emerged a veritable heroine after the 1971 war, her authoritarian streak and her instinctive liking for baser values proved to be her undoing when she imposed emergency in 1975. That politicians are bad at taking lessons from history turned out to be true when she promoted Bhindranwale against the Akalis and thus raised a Frankenstein.

Rajiv Gandhi fell into the same trap when he encouraged the UP government headed by Vir Bahadur Singh to unlock the Ram Janmabhoomi in the Babri Mosque complex at Ayodhya. His assessment of reaping the emotional dividends from Hindus proved to be a grievous political error which practically pushed the Congress to a marginal force in Uttar Pradesh. In the country’s political context, the Congress is not alone in treading this path. The BJP, which gained muscle after Advani’s rath yatra, was a very quick learner of tricks of the trade — chicanery, doublespeak and deceit. After gaining ground on religious idioms and promise of good governance, they tried to distance themselves from everything they earlier stood for. The party found itself marginalised sooner than expected in Uttar Pradesh. The same holds true about regional satraps and parties which resorted to low cunning as a strategy and found themselves on the wrong side of popular feelings.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh is certainly not an exception. But the most disconcerting feature of Thursday’s Rajya Sabha proceeding was the collective display of low cunning by a gathering, which plays the role of panch parmeshwar. Sadly, this panch parmeshwar seems devoid of the soul of India that Premchand talked about.



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