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Rule of law: A comparison
February, 09th 2007

Rule of law is said to be the litmus test of a genuine, as distinguished from a spurious, democracy. Its core principle is the oft-quoted "Be you ever so high, the law is above you", meaning that everyone is equal before the law. It is in the application of this principle that there is a striking difference between mature and sham democracies. Let us contrast the situation in this respect prevailing in a `soft' State such as India, on the one hand, and `hard' States such as the US and the UK, on the other.

In India, persons committing even heinous crimes are nominated as candidates of political parties in elections and get elected to Parliament and State Legislative Assemblies. Their criminal antecedents act as no bar to their being sworn in by the President and Governors as Cabinet Ministers on the advice of the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers.

Nelson's eye

One cannot even imagine the so-called long arm of the law touching persons of high rank or status. Even if, thanks to public outcry, cases are brought against them, they either go scot-free or are let off lightly, by exploiting the vulnerability of the investigative machinery to pressures and loopholes in court procedures. A murder is committed in the living quarters of a godperson, but the matter is hushed up since he has access to the rich and the famous.

Persons in authority think nothing of using law and the investigative agencies as weapons of harassment of critics and opponents, while turning the Nelson's eye to the malfeasance of their supporters. There is not one instance of investigative agencies ever registering or pursuing a case against persons in authority or their cohorts, but the same agencies show no hesitation in hounding those who are on the wrong side of the political fence.

VIPs, defaulting thousands of crores of rupees of loans taken from banks, are strutting as pillars of society and stars of public and official functions, and no action is taken against them simply because they have friends in high places. It is only in India that it is possible for a Quattrocchi to make a smooth getaway despite facing grave criminal charges, and to be allowed to withdraw huge amounts kept frozen in British Banks. Seven Governments at the Centre have come and gone since the Swedish radio broadcast the news of the kickbacks in the malodorous Bofors scandal, with no end in sight.

Cash-for-honours

Fast forward to the US. Within the last year, at least four Congresspersons and Senators have been convicted after quick trials completed within six months or so and sentenced to periods of imprisonment of more than five years. Close aides or friends of the President and the Vice-President committing serious misdemeanours have been booked and are being tried, with every prospect of being visited with deterrent punishment. In the UK, the police promptly took up investigation of a case in which the Prime Minister's office (PMO) was alleged to have rewarded with honours such as peerages and knighthoods fat cats who had advanced enormous sums as loans to the Labour Party. The police have arrested the Chief of Government Relations in the PMO, and the Prime Minister's chief fundraiser, and have grilled his Chief of Staff and Chief of Political Operations as suspects in the conspiracy. The Prime Minister himself has been subjected to questioning by the police twice in his own office.

Substitute the names of you-know-whos in India and ask yourself whether the investigative agencies would dare act like this against them.

B. S. RAGHAVAN

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