By Swapan Dasgupta
During World War II, many people, otherwise good, decent family men, sometimes highly educated and with cultural accomplishments, unleashed unspeakable horrors on fellow humans in the name of Fuhrer, Emperor and Fatherland.
After the War, the victorious Allies set up War Crimes Tribunals to bring the leaders of a defeated Germany and Japan to justice. A recurrent feature of the trials, which covered people ranging from Field Marshals and apparatchiks to commandants of concentration camps and industrialists who benefited from the use of forced labour, was the refrain of many of the accused: "we merely followed orders".
The argument that being a loyal, disciplined soldier of the state or party exonerates individuals from criminal culpability was rejected by the Tribunals on the strength of the Nuremberg Principle: "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."
Over the past fortnight, the 2G Telecom scandal has agitated public opinion, disrupted Parliament and led to the resignation of DMK's A.Raja from the Cabinet. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General has suggested that a flawed policy was responsible for the national exchequer being short-changed by a whopping Rs 1.7 lakh crore. In a rare move, the Supreme Court has asked the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to explain why he sat over a citizen's request for permission to prosecute Raja. Finally, a media revelation has suggested that PM, far from being a blind Dhritarashtra, actually sanctioned the derailment of the common good. Unless the Government is able to placate a belligerent Opposition with either tokenism or some credible answers to the grave charges, India may witness a full blown political crisis that won't leave the PM unaffected.
In rebutting his detractors, Raja appears to have fallen back on the Nuremberg Defence. He has claimed that he was acting within policy guidelines and that the PM was in the know. Ironically, Raja's claim has been bolstered by the disclosure of a letter of February 28, 2006 by Dayanidhi Maran—the DMK representative who was his predecessor as Telecom Minister—that suggests two things. First, that Raja's actions stemmed from a path that had been determined by the DMK leadership. Raja, it would seem, merely "followed orders". Secondly, that the 'DMK Telecom policy' was known to the PM who did the groundwork by insulating 2G pricing from the Group of Ministers.
The DMK, it would be fair to say, is highly placed in the index of venality. Shaped by the pulls and pressures of the large Karunanidhi clan, its stand on national issues have often been guided by the what's-in-it-for-us question. Raja, wasn't confronted with "moral choices". He, presumably, "followed orders" and turned the spirit of John F. Kennedy's on its head: 'Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what the country can do for you.'
But what about the PM, entrusted by the Constitution to uphold the national interest? There were times when Singh had to let expediency prevail—such as in the distribution of ministerial portfolios and in outsourcing the management of MPs to Amar Singh during the Trust Vote of 2008. But how could he knowingly look the other way while a Cabinet Minister choked a public revenue stream? Why did he allow the CBI to underperform in its inquiries and be censured by the Supreme Court? Did his 'coalition dharma' include the right to insulate a political party from collective Cabinet responsibility? Singh wasn't just guilty of omission; he is on the verge of being accused of complicity.
It is well worth applying the Nuremberg Principles to the PM, even though the issue is fiscal impropriety and not murder. Was the PM "following orders"? This is a strange question to ask. People take orders from the PM and not the other way round, unless there is an extra-Constitutional force at work. Was there? If so, the country is entitled to know.
Moreover, was a "moral choice" available to the PM? Was he in a position to say No to Raja and define the limits of the DMK's arbitrariness? The answers are self-evident.
The country views Singh as a man of integrity and erudition. Left to himself, he would have handled 2G very differently. Yet, despite being the only man who had the power and opportunity to right the wrongs, he abdicated responsibility. His moral failing lay in allowing coalition dharma to become coalition adharma. Judged by the Nuremberg Principles, Singh is guiltier than Raja.