(First published in The Pioneer dated February 14, 2012)
The transformation of Salman Khurshid from a suave and soft-spoken politician to a rabble-rouser is now complete. His supporters can say that the ongoing Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh is the cause for this metamorphosis and that once the election is done with, Mr Khurshid will return to his affable self. Even if that happens, it will not wipe out the taint of communalism that the Union Minister for Law and Justice is now besmirched with. Anything that he does now or later to ‘correct’ this perception will be taken by the people with a pinch of salt. In short, he has lost credibility.
But why has Mr Khurshid sacrificed his impeccable reputation? It is an act of desperation by a politician who knows that the community which he is cultivating for votes (for his wife who is a contestant in Uttar Pradesh and for the Congress) is slipping out of his reach. He had the option of retaining his secular credentials even at the cost of losing the support of those Muslims who vote on communal considerations, but he did not exercise it. Instead, the Minister has plunged deeper down by compromising his position further. In the process, he has lost both his image and the support of the Muslims who are more amused than impressed by his antics.
Events of the recent past serve to illustrate the dangerous path that Mr Khurshid has begun to walk. As a Minister for Law and Justice, he has brazenly taken on the Election Commission of India, not just questioning it but even cocking a snook at it, merely because the Election Commission has taken strong objection to the Minister’s violation of the Model Code of Conduct. In fact, after Mr Khurshid made the announcement for the first time at an election meeting in Uttar Pradesh that the Congress would extend reservation to the Muslims to the extent of nine per cent within the existing quota of 27 per cent currently available to the Other Backward Classes, the poll panel had concluded that he had indeed violated the code of conduct. It had observed, “The Commission, therefore, cannot help expressing its deep anguish and disappointment over his violation of the model code of conduct.” Having expressed “anguish” and “disappointment”, the Election Commission let him off with a censure, and everybody hoped that Mr Khurshid had got the message and would reform.
But that did not happen; in fact, the Minister became even more emboldened after being let off so lightly. Days later on February 11, at another meeting in Uttar Pradesh, he not only reiterated the resolve to offer reservation, but also dared the poll panel to take action against him. “If they want to hang me they can, they can hang me for committing to people the quota. We will change the fate of the poor, even if we have to go against the Election Commission.” This is not the language of a responsible Union Minister, and certainly not the language that a Union Minister for Law and Justice should be speaking. It only goes to demonstrate the contempt with which he holds the Election Commission – an organisation which, along with the judiciary, the media and the Armed forces, is the most respected and trusted by the people in the country.
Mr Khurshid’s shocking remark has not drawn any condemnation from the Congress, which talks of upholding the sanctity of constitutional and statutory bodies. Let alone deliver a strong rebuke, the party has preferred to distance itself from his remarks, as if the promise of quota for Muslims that he has been making is strictly for his personal use and not for the Congress. Neither has there been any response from the Prime Minister. The maun vrat by both Ms Sonia Gandhi and Mr Manmohan Singh on the issue is as revolting as Mr Khurshid’s utterances. The Congress’s advisory subsequent to Mr Khurshid’s belligerence that party leaders must respect constitutional authorities, does not serve any real purpose.
In the light of the Government’s and the Congress’s inaction and the lack of any enthusiasm to act against the Minister, the Election Commission must consider a harsher response to Mr Khurshid’s action. It has already taken the unprecedented step of writing straight to the President and complaining about the Minister’s conduct. The Election Commission has said in its letter, “We have found the tone and tenor of the Union Minister dismissive and utterly contemptuous about the Commission’s lawful direction to him, besides the fact that his action is damaging the level playing field in the election. The response of a Union Minister and that too, the Law Minister, to the Commission’s decision has created a disturbing situation. The Commission is shocked that instead of being remorseful about the violation of the Model Code, that carries the consensus of all political parties and the sanction of the Supreme Court, the Minister has chosen to be defiant and aggressive.”
So, what can the Election Commission do now? It has already expressed enough anguish and disappointment; it has censured Mr Khurshid and lodged a written protest with the President. Remember, in its letter, the Commission has mentioned that the Minister has violated a code that has the “sanction of the Supreme Court”. In that case, why should it not move the Supreme Court on the matter? The legal position on the issue is best left to the legal brains, but it is assumed that any violation of the provisions that have been endorsed by the Supreme Court can be legally challenged. If the Commission does not wish to do that, it can explore other measures at its command. Surely, it is not that toothless.
Mr Khurshid has a problem with the Election Commission. He did not have a problem earlier when the Commission issued its ridiculous diktat of covering all statues of Mayawati and elephants (the election symbol of the Bahujan Samaj Party) during the election period. But the moment the poll panel took note of his remarks on reservation, the Minister lashed out, at one point trying to cut it down to size by remarking that the Commission fell within the administrative control of the Union Ministry of Law and Justice, since the Ministry signed documents which related to the travel of Election Commissioners. Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi had then complained about him to the Prime Minister, but remedial action from the Prime Minister, as expected, was near to nothing.
The disgraceful extent to which Mr Khurshid is willing to go in his pursuit of the elusive Muslim vote was on display when he recently told a crowd of Muslims – yes, again in Uttar Pradesh – that Ms Sonia Gandhi had tears in her eyes when he showed her the images of the Batla House encounter. (Apparently the images that he is talking of are not of the grievously injured Delhi Police office MC Sharma who succumbed later but those of the bodies of the terrorists who were holed up in the building where the encounter took place). This time it was not the Election Commission but his own party colleagues who put him on the mat. Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, who has been the most vocal in the Congress claiming that the Batla encounter was fake, denied that Sonia had cried. Party leader Parvez Hashmi too does not remember Ms Gandhi shedding tears. She was worried, he has clarified. So, has Mr Khurshid made up this story? Given his recent conduct, nothing is beyond the Minister.