The future of 20 MLAs of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi is in doubt as they prepare to challenge in court a ruling by the Election Commission, assented by the President of India, to disqualify them on the ground that they held an 'Office of Profit', which is barred under the Constitution for legislators on the ground that it makes them get benefits in being part of the executive.
Seriously, the whole thing reminds me of a celebrated, complex French play by Eugene Ionesco, called 'Rhinoceros'. The 1959 play is surreal, with many absurdities and hidden meanings, including imagined ones - like a work of abstract art. But there is a lot in it that is simply absurd. When people of a small town see a rhinoceros that runs amok, they discuss the breed of the rhino. The hidden meaning is that in a town full of nice people, the bizarreness of a rhino running helter-skelter should be a matter of concern, not what breed it is.
As I see it, the current controversy over 'office of profit' is like debating the breed of the rhino - whether it is African or Asian is immaterial. The very idea of such an ill-defined office is grist for political opponents, but no one is wiser as a result. The Congress and the BJP are gunning for the AAP in Delhi because under the technical rules, the embattled MLAs held the office of a parliamentary secretary that is not covered under exemptions to offices of profit under an old Delhi law.
You cannot have as ministers more than a percentage of the MLAs, and AAP has apparently circumvented the limit by naming parliamentary secretaries, in the process landing itself in a political trap.
It is time to ask ourselves a simple question: 'Does it really matter in the deeper sense that these MLAs were parliamentary secretaries?' As in: 'Does it really matter what breed is a rhino when it is running amok in a town?'
The rhinoceros, that heavy, thick-skinned animal, is a metaphor for many things. The 'office of profit' is a rhino subject to many exemptions over the years and its victims include Jaya Bachchan and Sonia Gandhi. Ms. Gandhi was forced to resign as an MP because she was the chairperson of the National Advisory Council.
Now, look at the bigger picture. Moneybags have been getting Rajya Sabha seats for decades now. There is no need to name them, but you know who they are. The one worth naming is Vijay Mallya, whose claims to fame - if one might call it that - were liquor, horse-racing and swimsuit calendars before he thrust upon himself a defunct airline that led to loan problems that led to his fleeing India. He was a Rajya Sabha member and is currently busy in London belittling Indian law enforcers to fight his extradition to India.
Some industrialists have made it to the Rajya Sabha on strength of political loyalty and some because of long-term achievements in industry or media, but there are others who have gate-crashed into the upper house with dubious credentials. AAP itself deserves to be criticised more for naming a wealthy industrialist, Sushil Kumar Gupta, to the Rajya Sabha, rather than for the office-of-profit appointments. Mr. Gupta may be an honourable man with clean money, but for a party that claims to support "aam aadmi" issues, it is sending a wrong signal while it struggles to make a dent in national politics.
On the other hand, it makes more sense to focus on governance these days than simple law-making. AAP's parliamentary secretaries, in that sense, are more like officers on special duty when attached to specific ministries. If they belong to the ruling party, they are like shadow ministers. By directly drawing allowances from taxpayer money, they are only making things more transparent while influencing better governance.
To encourage educated, clean, middle-class professionals to enter active politics, it is important to give them legitimate responsibilities that improve governance and the means to help them get there. I see the roles of parliamentary secretaries in that light. Irrespective of what the courts rule on the disqualification of AAP legislators, I consider it an absurdity for them to be targeted while thugs dominate state politics across India and moneybags roam with grins on their faces in the Central Hall of Parliament, aided by Rajya Sabha seats of questionable merit. Congress and BJP alike have faced charges of sending moneybags to the Rajya Sabha. No major party seems to be covered in glory in the Rajya Sabha game.
It is time to stop discussing rhino breeds in a city where the animal is running amok. The bigger problem in India is high-level political corruption, not minor nitpicking that stops first-time MLAs on the tracks. It is time to look beyond minor technicalities and focus on real work. Grey areas defining wafer-thin overlaps between the executive and legislature should not be engaging our focus.
(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity.)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)