The criminal bent of India's political class stands exposed from the way the Ravindra Gaikwad saga has played out in the last few weeks. The manner in which our Members of Parliament expressed solidarity with a criminal politician tells us about a deeper malaise our country is facing. Worst of all, none of this is extraordinary or surprising. Politicians have for long gotten away with criminal conduct because of their power and influence.
Our Parliament is full of such people. In fact, the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), the good-governance watchdog, tells us that their numbers have been increasing over the years. In 2004, criminal politicians constituted 24% of the total membership of Lok Sabha. In 2009, their number increased to 30% and now more than one-third of the members of Lok Sabha (34%) belong to this dubious category.
In Ravindra Gaikwad we have a criminal politician who wears his criminality as a badge of honour and who publicly made a mockery of the law...
Ravindra Gaikwad, the MP who beat up a 60-year-old Air India employee who requested him to leave the aircraft to allow it to take off for its further destination, could be dismissed as one of this increasing tribe of detestable politicians. But what made this episode extraordinary was that Gaikwad brazenly went on national television and repeatedly and emphatically asserted that he had beaten up the Air India staffer 25 times with his chappal for his temerity to ask him, a privileged Member of Parliament, to get down the aircraft!
This assertion was a new low even for a criminal politician. Take the case of Mohammad Shahabuddin, the dreaded don of Siwan in Bihar. He was elected to the Lok Sabha for three consecutive terms. Shahabuddin broke the law with impunity in the remote corners of Siwan, but never bragged about it before the media there or anywhere—certainly not in the national capital. If ever quizzed him by journalists about his shadowy activities, there were quick expositions on conspiracies hatched by opponents.
But in Ravindra Gaikwad we have a criminal politician who wears his criminality as a badge of honour and who publicly made a mockery of the law, going as far as to challenge the law-enforcing authorities to dare to take action against him.
Imagine what would have happened to a member of the House of Commons in the UK or House of Representatives in the USA if he would have indulged in such behaviour? Plain and simple, he would have been arrested, sent to jail and prosecuted.
Imagine what would have happened if a common passenger of Air India would have committed the same crime as Gaikwad in Delhi airport? He would have been handcuffed and taken off the plane and lodged in Tihar.
But what happened to Gaikwad, the criminal? Air India lodged a complaint against him with the Delhi Police on two counts: first, the "VIP" passenger beat up the airline staffer with his chappal, as the former himself admitted and second, he tried to push an airline employee from the plane, as the video clearly corroborated.
The BJP had a chance to prove that some of its mass followers might be hooligans, but the leadership is determined to enforce the rule of law.
And what was the response of Delhi Police? It kept saying that it was investigating the complaints and that it was looking for Ravindra Gaikwad to take his version. Can you believe Delhi police's contention that it could not locate the whereabouts of the criminal MP when the television stations and newspapers were constantly trailing him and recording his repeated challenges to law enforcement to take action against him?
Why did Delhi Police, India's best-equipped and most pampered police force, behave in this timid fashion? The one and only explanation is that like most investigative agencies, it is a caged parrot. It does the bidding of the party in power at the Centre. The National Democratic Alliance is ruling at the Centre; the BJP heads this alliance and Shiv Sena, to which this rogue MP belongs, is a part of the ruling alliance.
The ruling BJP may not need the Shiv Sena at the Centre as it has a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha, but it needs the Shiv Sena's support to survive in power in Maharashtra. In the immediate context, the BJP desperately needs the support of Shiv Sena and other allies to gets its candidate elected as President of India, for which elections are due in the next few months.
Despite such political considerations, one had expected that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the poster child of good governance, would come down strongly on someone who publicly mocked the law. That way, he would have made the BJP distinguishable from the Shiv Sena, which is a party dominated by rogue elements. The BJP had a chance to prove that some of its mass followers might be hooligans, but the leadership is determined to enforce the rule of law.
India's political class as a whole epitomises T S Eliot's "Hollow Men", afraid to act and preoccupied with self-interest.
But the manner in which Gaikwad was allowed to go scot free by Delhi Police gave out a loud and clear message—the BJP government is prepared to throw the law of the land to the winds in favour of its immediate partisan interests.
But then the drama that unfolded in the Lok Sabha tells a more sordid story about the political class as a whole. After all, the BJP and Shiv Sena, the ruling allies, had a vested interest to subvert the law. What about the opposition parties? Even if their numbers are low, it would have been enough to bring the house down had they demanded the immediate arrest of the recalcitrant MP.
It will go down as one of the shameful days in the history of the Indian Parliament that most MPs—cutting across party lines—came together not to demand the arrest of the criminal but to appeal to the government to take him off the no-fly list of the public carrier.
Ashwani Lohani, CMD of the Air India, had taken the bold decision to ground the criminal MP. But the combined might of the political class made Lohani eat humble pie—the visibly cowed down Civil Aviation Minister asked Lohani to repeal the order. The excuse was that Gaikwad had expressed regret before the Lok Sabha about the incident. But then the pliable Speaker had told journalists that Lok Sabha could not take any action against Gaikwad as the incident happened outside the premises of Parliament. Never mind that the expression of "regret" by Gaikwad on the floor of the Lok Sabha made a mockery of due process. At the very least Gaikwad could have apologised to the airline staff member he had assaulted, but he stubbornly refused to do so. He didn't even bother to express regret.
Still, this man was taken off the hook—the symbolic action of not letting him fly was nullified on the specious pretext that a criminal politician's public duty was being affected by the ban. And the elite political class of India colluded to let a criminal fly high simply because they wanted to preserve their privileges as VIP passengers.
The Gaikwad episode, while holding a mirror to institutional failings of our democracy, is also symptomatic of a breakdown of popular accountability in our politics. We have come to such a sorry pass because India's political class as a whole epitomises T S Eliot's "Hollow Men", afraid to act and preoccupied with self-interest.