Why Ashok Lavasa Accepting ‘New Role’ Casts Shadow Over Democracy

Ashok Lavasa was hailed by admirers when he declared that honesty isn’t a fetish but something to be practised.

Updated22 Jul 2020, 09:35 AM IST
Opinion
4 min read

It is highly unusual for someone holding a constitutional position to be offered a lucrative posting by the very Executive he is supposed to be independent of. Yet, Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa has been nominated by the government as a Vice President of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and he has accepted the offer – he had two more years left in his constitutional role.

Prima facie, both the government’s recommendation and Lavasa’s acceptance are damaging to Indian democracy.

Lavasa will now be out of the succession for the post of Chief Election Commissioner falling vacant in April 2021.

Ashok Lavasa Had Once Commented On ‘Paying the Price For Honesty’

In the run up to the 2019 general election, Lavasa had opposed the clean chit given by the EC to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah for violating the Model Code of Conduct. He did this not once, but five times, and when his dissent was not recorded, he refused to attend the EC’s meetings. It earned him the wrath of powerful political figures who won a massive mandate.

After they assumed power, Lavasa’s family was apparently ‘punished’ for his ‘intransigence’.

His wife received income-tax notices. The Enforcement Directorate targeted a company in which his son was a director, for alleged violations of foreign exchange laws. His sister was hauled up for alleged stamp duty evasion.

In an anguished December 2019 op-ed in The Indian Express, Lavasa had lamented his isolation: “It is naïve to expect those that have been opposed by the honest to meekly accept the ascendance of the meek. They strike back and the price for the honest could be in the form of lonely suffering, even noticeable isolation.”

He noted that being prepared to ‘pay the price’ for being honest, directly or as collateral damage, was part of that act of honesty. Lavasa’s case raises the troubling question: whether honesty has been ‘priced out of the market’.

Snapshot
  • In the run up to the 2019 general election, Lavasa had opposed the clean chit given by the EC to PM Modi and Amit Shah for violating the Model Code of Conduct.
  • After they assumed power, Lavasa’s family was apparently ‘punished’ for his ‘intransigence’.
  • In an anguished December 2019 op-ed in The Indian Express, Lavasa had lamented his ‘isolation’.
  • The EC has been coasting along on a reputation for independence, that has little resemblance with ground realities.
  • The lobbying of the government by serving Supreme Court judges for appointment to post-retirement sinecures, is notorious.
  • Lavasa was hailed by admirers when he declared that honesty is not a fetish to be worshipped but something to be practised.

Instances In Which Constitutional Positions Were Undermined

The EC has been coasting along on a reputation for independence, that has little resemblance with ground realities.

The process of ‘suborning’ constitutional positions began much before Lavasa’s nomination to a senior position at ADB.

When the Congress government ‘sought to influence’ the Supreme Court by superseding three senior judges in the appointment of AN Ray as the Chief Justice of India in 1973, it invoked the need for ‘forward looking’ judges who understood the ‘winds of change’ sweeping the country. Former Chief Justice Mohammad Hidayatullah aptly criticised such measures for not creating ‘forward looking’ judges but judges who looked forward’ to the ‘plumes’.

Chief Justice P Sathasivam’s acceptance of the post of governor within five months of retiring, prompted the Congress to wonder which of his judgments he had been ‘rewarded’ for.

The lobbying of the government by serving Supreme Court judges for appointment to post-retirement sinecures, is notorious.

When Chief Justice K Subbarao became the candidate of the united Opposition for the President of India in 1967, his discussions with the Opposition – while still serving as Chief Justice of India – raised questions of propriety. Then there was Justice Baharul Islam who resigned as Congress Rajya Sabha MP to become a judge of the Assam High Court and later of the Supreme Court. He resigned to re-join the Congress and was elected to the Upper House once again.

The lowest point in the independence of the judiciary, however, was when the sitting Chief Justice of India, Justice P N Bhagwati, wrote an obsequious letter to Indira Gandhi on her re-election as prime minister in 1980 –– describing her as “the symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the poor, hungry millions of India”. There have many instances since of sitting judges showering praise on political leaders.

Why Lavasa’s New Avatar Comes As A Shock

The examples of active subversion of constitutional and statutory bodies are endless. If Lavasa’s calls for comment, it is because he showed promise of independence with public declarations like: “The path of honesty, like dharma, is straight yet seldom simple. It often turns out to be tortuous, consumes more energy, sometimes even damaging the vehicle because of unfavourable road conditions. The honest, however, go on regardless, perhaps driven by an inner force that borders on recklessness.”

Lavasa was hailed by admirers when he declared that honesty is not a fetish to be worshipped but something to be practised.

If he really meant those things then it is difficult to accept his abandonment of his constitutional duties.

Perhaps Lavasa’s dilemma is best described in the lines made famous by Marlon Brando in the film On the Waterfront, where he regrets having thrown a fight as a budding boxer. Battling both his conscience and the corrupt mobsters he has joined, he laments: “I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody.”

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 21 Jul 2020, 08:33 PM IST
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