‘Companies like the Reliance will force the Congress and the BJP to come together soon’
‘That Narendra Modi hasn’t said a word on the huge scams involving the Reliance shows that the BJP is 100 per cent controlled by, among other companies, the Reliance’
‘A corrupt corporate class has become so powerful that today it is they who control the politician’
‘The worst thing that this kind of liberalisation has done is to create a corporate mafia which has become the biggest threat to democracy’
‘The Aam Aadmi Party has largely national ambitions. Delhi is only the first step towards setting right the political system in the country’
‘People are fed up with these mainstream politics. The Aam Aadmi Party gradually became visible as a viable option for the people’
‘I think the writer Arundhati Roy has changed her opinion about us’
‘Kiran Bedi wanted us, as was clear from her tweets and interviews, to support the BJP’
‘When you see social injustice or corruption taking place, it makes you very angry, makes your blood boil’
‘Those who are in power, whether belonging to the Congress or the BJP, knew that half of them would be in jail if there were an anti-corruption institution of the kind we were proposing’
‘The nature of our election system allows unprincipled, dishonest people to come to power’
‘The Westminster style of democracy has now become unworkable’
‘Electoral politics is certainly not my cup of tea. Temperamentally, I am not suited to it’
‘But when you are taunted again and again that you can’t get even 2 per cent of the votes they get, then we had to take up the challenge’
‘I didn’t think our people would be so adept at this kind of grassroots electoral politics.’
‘I do feel Muslims would probably feel comfortable with me in general, because of the human rights causes I have taken up’
Eminent lawyer Prashant Bhushan’s most favoured ammunition in his fight against the state, the powerful, and the corrupt is the public interest litigation. He turned this into a formidable weapon for widening the ambit of civil liberties, and thwarting the encroachment upon the rights of people, particularly the poor and disempowered. The nation wouldn’t have heard of many of the sensational scams had Prashant Bhushan not unearthed them and pursued them doggedly.
Three years ago, he also discovered in himself the capacity to trigger a popular movement. One of the founders of the anti-corruption movement, he and others came together to float the Aam Aadmi Party which, as opinion polls suggest, seems to have captured Delhi’s imagination. As Prashant Bhushan tucked into the common man’s lunch of kulcha and channa, he spoke to Ajaz Ashraf on how he became interested in public interest litigations, how large corporations have hijacked India’s democracy, his fight to secure justice for Muslims, the national ambition of the Aam Aadmi Party, and why this country needs a substantial measure of direct democracy.
Your name has become synonymous with public interest litigations (PIL). What was your motivation in getting involved with them? Do you remember the first public interest litigation case you took up?
I always had a wide range of interests. Initially, I was studying engineering, then physics, then economics, and then I studied philosophy. In between I had the occasion to attend the hearings of the Indira Gandhi election case and the habeas corpus case during the Emergency.
You mean you were studying all these subjects at the time you were doing your BA?
Yes, in the course of my education I studied all these subjects quite seriously, philosophy particularly. My range of interests was very wide. So when I started practicing law in 1983, (environmental activist) Vandana Shiva came to me for the Doon Valley limestone mining case. She came to me because she learnt that I had studied physics, and she wanted somebody who understood physics. That was the first public interest litigation case that I was involved in. I was then already involved with the civil liberties movement. During the Emergency, I not only saw what was happening but participated, to some extent, in the political campaign to defeat the Congress in 1977.
So you were anti-Congress right from the beginning?
Not anti-Congress, but yes, anti Emergency, anti the stifling of civil liberties. Since I had a ringside view of the Indira Gandhi case and the habeas corpus case it certainly created a strong…
Ringside view in what sense?
My father (former Union law minister Shanti Bhushan) was a lawyer in both the cases. At that very time, when I was a BA student, I had written a book on the Indira Gandhi election case. The book was titled The Case That Shook India. Thereafter, I progressively became involved in the civil liberties movement, environment issues, in issues relating to social justice such as involuntary displacement of people and the problems of oustees, as in the Narmada case. In between the Bofors scandal happened, I followed that closely and wrote a book on that, called Bofors: The Selling Of A Nation. I wrote extensively on it, and got involved in the public interest litigation to stop the destruction of that case.
Which pertained to what?
The Congress government tried to bury the case and we resurrected it through the court. I also got involved with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case – the settlement and the review of the settlement and seeking relief for the victims. There was also the Narmada Bachao Andolan. So I progressively became involved with more and more and more issues and with more and more and more organisations.
And as I became involved with more and more issues and more and more organisations, I came to see that one of the main problems which made the roots of all these issues was corruption. Therefore, corruption increasingly occupied greater space and time in my preoccupations.
How would corruption link up to, say, the Narmada or environmental issues?
Today, most policies in this country are being made in the commercial interest of large corporations. This is because these corporations bribe, directly or indirectly, the policy-makers to make that kind of policies. For instance, take the issue of large dams. The policy to pursue large dams is also the result of either direct corruption or indirect conflict of interest. You have created this huge lobby of the large dam building industry which supports this kind of policy, though it has now become very clear now that large dams for irrigation are not cost-effective and cause other kind of problems such as displacement etc.
So, yes, as I got increasingly involved with more and more public interest issues, I saw that public policy in this country was almost completely driven by commercial vested interests. Unfortunately, public policy had become increasingly divorced from public interest. That is why we have set up a small institute called the Sambhaavnaa Institute of Public Policy and Politics in Palampur (Himachal Pradesh). The institute’s object is to create a cadre of public policy activists who understand public policy.
This is because those who have commercial interests in public policy, of course, understand it, but they try to steer it in their own direction, for their own purposes. Those who want to steer the policies in the direction of public interest do not understand these issues well enough. Therefore, we need to create a cadre of activists who understand the issues and who are motivated completely by public interest.
So that is how I got involved in public interest litigations. When you see injustice taking place, whether it is social injustice or corruption, it makes you very angry, makes your blood boil.
Would I be right in saying that your experiences made you realise that the state, which is supposed to protect the people, look after their welfare, actually suppresses or smothers them to benefit the large corporations?
Would it be right to say your political awakening and education took place through public interest litigations?
To some extent what you are saying is true. When you deal with a public interest case, you get a ringside view of that issue. This is because people who are experts, who have been trying to understand that issue and follow it properly, they come to you. The Narmada Bachao Andolan is a very good example. It involved social justice issues, environmental issues, so you understand what are the costs and consequences of these large dams, what are the multifarious impacts on people, on environment, and how cost-benefits are not factored into calculations at the time decisions are taken. You get an opportunity to learn about these issues from the best experts in the shortest possible time. Therefore, it helps in creating political awareness, in making all the connections – what is going on in the society, why is it going on, who is really in control, and who is running (the show) in whose interests.
So over the years of fighting public interest litigations, would you say the state has become more corrupt, more anti-people?
Yes, corruption has been gradually growing and, therefore, the disregard for public interest has been growing, especially among those who are in power. Consequently, the state has become divorced from public interest. Liberalisation, ironically, has increased corruption. You see, liberalisation has created a new kind of business which did not exist earlier.
Can you elaborate upon it?
Earlier, you could take bribes to the extent of the profits the newly licensed businessmen could make from their business – which was, say, 10 per cent of the revenues. The revenues were also limited due to competition etc. Liberalisation opened any kind of business to transfer of capital assets from the state to the private sector – transferring of land, transferring of mines, transferring of public sector units. Here the profits were virtually unlimited, there was suddenly a quantum jump of 100 times over the profits being earned earlier. You had this new class of businesses, which includes Reliance, Essar, and many other such large companies, which have grown only on the strength of this kind of business, of making huge profits, of making absolutely horrendous profits out of transferring of capital assets from the public sector, or from the state, or from the people, to themselves.
Secondly, it created private monopolies which didn’t exist earlier. All monopolies were in the state sector, but in this liberalisation phase, we created private monopolies.
Electricity distribution, airport, roads, highways – these are all monopolies. If you have to go from Delhi to Agra, there is only one straight road; you can’t have two. And if that road is given to a private company, it can charge any amount of toll. Of course, the bigger corruption has been to give them land for commercialization along the highway.
Are you saying the land is given to them on their plea that since they can’t charge as much as they should, they need to be compensated in other ways?
It is not even a plea, it is given to them as a bonus. So we have opened up new kinds of businesses where profits can be enormous. If you allow monopoly in electricity distribution, people are forced to pay whatever (is charged). In theory, there is a regulator. But it is the best model to corrupt the regulator. In most cases the regulator has been corrupted, as is clear from this director-general of hydrocarbons who certified the cost for Reliance to be four times the original cost, from $2 billion to $8 billion in one shot, which effectively ensured the government would get zero from the gas-fields and the entire profits would be siphoned out by Reliance. The same thing happened in electricity distribution here – accounts have been fudged and they have been over-billing their own companies to show the costs are much higher than what they actually are.
So it is a case of legitimizing the illegitimate?
Absolutely. Because all of all this, the scope for corruption has increased immensely, as we have seen in coal mines allocation and 2G.
And obviously, the political class too has benefitted enormously from it?
Yes, actually, worst of all, this process has created a corrupt corporate class which has become so powerful that today it is they who control the politician. So when Mukesh Ambani tells that fellow, (former prime minister AB Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law) Ranjan Bhattacharya, “Congress to apni dukaan hai (Congress is our shop)”, it is not merely the Congress. In another conversation between (politician) NK Singh and (Nira) Radia, it is made abundantly clear that the BJP “to unke bilkul jeb mein hai. (BJP is in their pocket)” He says “Shourie ko hata ke hamne Venkiah Naidu ko laye, and Venkiah Naidu to hamare jeb mein hai. (We replaced Shourie with Naidu, who is in our pocket)” and we will send our men to him and explain to him what he has to say and what he doesn’t have to in Parliament. (In this incident, Shourie was to be the BJP lead speaker in the Rajya Sabha on the 2009 Budget, the provisions of which were supposed to benefit Mukesh Ambani and the Reliance immensely).
This is exactly what happened. This is what Arun Shourie reveals in his interview with Karan Thapar. What does it show? One, the former BJP president was in Reliance’s pocket, that the BJP’s leadership then was also in their pocket that they could so easily have Shourie removed and have him substituted by Naidu. Then the fact that Modi hasn’t said a word on the huge scams involving the Reliance etc shows that – for every scam of Reliance that surfaces, whether it is of foreign bank accounts or whatever, the BJP hasn’t said a word – the BJP is completely, completely, 100 per cent controlled by, among other companies, the Reliance.
Therefore, the worst thing that this kind of liberalisation has done is to create a corporate mafia in this country which controls the polity. It has become the biggest threat to democracy.
The BJP hasn’t really spoken out even against Robert Vadra.
That is a different kind of collaboration. That is a consequence of fear psychosis, that if we attack their son-in-law they will attack our son-in-law. This is what you call honour among thieves – that we won’t attack each other’s sons-in-law and the main people in the parties. I feel sooner or later you will see the BJP and the Congress brought together by companies like the Reliance. Eventually, the threat that they will see is really a threat from the Aam Aadmi Party. They know it is the only type of party which they can’t do business with. They can do business with all other mainstream parties, and that’s why companies like the Reliance will force the Congress and the BJP to eventually come together. You will see it happening soon enough.
So did this perception lead you to join the anti-corruption movement and eventually the Aam Aadmi Party? Can you go through the process of how the idea of initiating the movement was born?
I was already doing a lot of corruption cases in court, and taking up many corruption issues. I was one of the founder-members of the NCPRI (National Campaign for People’s Right to Information), and so when the NCPRI decided to make a Lokpal Bill, I was one of the members of that committee (that was formed to prepare the bill), Arvind (Kejriwal) was another member. Thereafter, when Arvind thought that we need to make it into a political movement, then….
This was when?
About three years ago. So when we decided to make it into a political movement, I readily agreed to participate in that. It was at the time we had the first rally in January 2011. Then he contacted Anna (Hazare), and the rest is known, of course. That is how I got involved. But of course, the prime mover of this whole thing was really Arvind.
But there were problems in turning the movement into a political party, right?
There were problems because there were differences of opinion among us. Initially, we thought the government would yield to the public pressure. Those were the heady times and a lot of people joined the movement thinking that this would lead to something concrete happening. But when we saw the resistance, we realised the resistance was for a very good reason, that this resistance wouldn’t go away, however much the public pressure may be.
Can you spell out the nature of this resistance?
Ya, ya. Those who were in power, whether from the Congress or the BJP, knew that half of them would be in jail if there were an institution of the kind that we were proposing – a totally robust, independent, powerful anti-corruption institution. They were not going to seek to win public support by landing themselves up in jail. That became very clear to us.
Another thing that became clear to us is that our democracy is flawed. It is a democracy in which even though 80 per cent of the people were clearly saying they want the Jan Lokpal Bill, it was still not being brought. In theory, democracy is government by the will of the people. But this was not happening. We understood that there is a problem within the system of democracy, in the sense we only have a representative system of democracy where the people’s role is limited to voting every five years. Then the nature of our election system as such — the first-past-the-post system, the Westminster style of democracy in which you need a majority to run the government – essentially allows unprincipled, dishonest people to come to power on the basis of enormous money and through unprincipled coalitions etc.
We, therefore, had a stark choice before us – either we continue doing the same thing, that is, keep on mobilising public opinion which was bound to result in diminishing results. People want results, they don’t get interested or excited if they feel their protests are not going to yield anything, not take them anywhere. Therefore, many of us realised that the only way out for us was to form a political party.
But through this process Anna Hazare left, Kiran Bedi left. How do you see their departure now? Had they remained in the party, would it have been of great help for the Aam Aadmi Party in the forthcoming election?
Anna Hazare would certainly have been, so would have been Kiran Bedi. Of course, Kiran Bedi kept giving indications that she was in favour of the BJP.
Indicating favour in what sense?
While she did not want us to get involved in elections, she wanted us, as was clear from her tweets and interviews, to support the BJP.
That the movement should support the BJP?
Yes. So far as Anna was concerned he didn’t want to get into electoral politics. We respected that, so we had to go without him. He said if we were to get involved in electoral politics, we too would get corrupted. To this, Arvind said, what is the option? As he kept saying, “aap yehi samajh lijye ki hamne apni izzat bhi daun par laga di. Yehi hoga ki hamari izzat bhi khatam ho jayegi. But aur koi option bhi kya hai. (You may as well think that we have staked our honour. What can happen is that we may lose our honour. But what other option do we have?”
If this country has to change, it has to change either by an electoral revolution or by a violent revolution. But violent revolution is not going to lead to democracy. The only way to bring about a non-violent revolution in this country is to bring about an electoral revolution. We understand this is a very difficult job, but there is no option. Therefore, we had to take this plunge into politics even though we did not want to get involved in it. It is certainly not my cup of tea.
Why do you say that?
Temperamentally, I am not suited to it. But when there is no option, when there are people taunting you again and again and challenging you – who are you, we are the elected representative, you people are nobody, you can’t even get 2 per cent of the votes we get – then we had to take up the challenge.
Has the Aam Aadmi Party’s growth been to your expectations?
I’d say the growth has been to the more optimistic side of our expectations. I didn’t think our people would be so adept at this kind of grassroots electoral politics. But when challenged, they have shown they are fairly adept at it. By they, I mean people who have spent nearly 18 hours a day for the last one year (to build the Aam Aadmi Party), people like Arvind, Manish (Sisodia), Yogendra Yadav, Gopal Rai, Dilip Pande, Bibhav, in fact so many of them… They have shown they have an understanding and a feel for…
You are not counting yourself.
I am not really in that league. I do provide legal support and other kinds of support. Whatever advice I can give, I do. But they are clearly the people who have done this. They have done a remarkable job and, frankly, I never expected them to do what they have already achieved.
What do you think has clicked with the people?
People are fed up with these mainstream politics. They want an option, they want a change, and they were unable to see any viable option before them. But because of the imaginative manner in which our campaign was run, the Aam Aadmi Party gradually became visible as a viable option for the people. And because the campaign was preceded by the anti-corruption movement whose leaders were seen as sincere, honest and public-spirited people, the Aam Aadmi Party got the support of a lot of people.
But there are many who feel the Aam Aadmi Party won’t be able to tackle the challenges of the week before the polling day, when the Congress and the BJP would supply money and liquor in slums, even intimidate the voters there to vote for them.
The BJP and the Congress claim that the Aam Aadmi Party has made so much progress because they hadn’t started their campaign, and since they are starting now… But what we see is that since they have started distributing tickets now, their infighting is also surfacing now. This had been dormant all this while. We know these parties will use liquor and money, particularly towards the end of the campaign. We have ground-level volunteers who will try to detect that and stop it to the extent they can. We are conscious that money and liquor will be used, yet we don’t think it is going to make a huge difference. It will, at best, influence one per cent of votes this time. So I don’t think it will have a significant impact on the last day.
Have you been campaigning?
Not much yet. I have been to a few public meeting…
That is surprising, as I assume you would be a big draw among Muslims for having taken up cases of false encounters or picking up of innocent Muslim boys in terror cases. In fact, during the anti-corruption movement you all were alleged to have been a quasi-front of the BJP. Your presence was cited by many as a compelling argument against that allegation.
I do feel Muslims would probably feel comfortable with me in general, because of the human rights causes I have taken up.
Can you spell it out?
There are some issues which I have fought in court. There are other issues which I have not fought in court. For example, there was this People’s Tribunal in Hyderabad in 2008 in which the issue was the victimization of innocent Muslim boys.
In the Mecca Masjid blasts?
No, no, it was victimization in general. People had come from various parts of the country. In various terrorist cases – whether Mecca Masjid, Jaipur, Samjhauta Express, Malegaon – innocent Muslim boys had been picked up, tortured, and eventually some of them got acquitted. Many of them, though, are still in jail. I was one of the members of the jury which prepared a report showing how the police forces in the country have become systematically communalized, and that even the judiciary closed its eyes to even instances of torture that took place in police custody. I fought this case of 56-odd Muslims boys who had been kept in jail in Gujarat for the Ahmedabad blasts. They were severely tortured in jail and several of them had their bones broken by the jail authorities. We had sought for a transfer of the trial from Gujarat. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not accept that.
Similarly, in the Batla case we had asked for an independent investigation. Unfortunately, again, the court did not agree to that. Even the NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) relied only on a police investigation and did not do an independent investigation in the matter. In our view, there was enough circumstantial evidence to indicate that the encounter was a fake encounter, irrespective of whether those boys were involved in terrorism or not. They may or may not have been, but the encounter was false. It needed an independent investigation but, unfortunately, it was not ordered, perhaps because one inspector had died in the incident and there was therefore a charged opinion on that.
I have always felt, and I have always believed, that victimization of innocent people for terror offences, in fact, leads to more terrorism in the long run. If you destroy lives of innocent people in this manner, some of them do become terrorists, just as the Maoist problem has been exacerbated by things like Operation Green Hunt, where you have killed innocent Adivasis in the name of hunting down Maoists. That has encouraged some of the Adivasis who had been victimized to actually join the Maoists.
Unfortunately, what we are seeing again in this country is the resurgence of communalism, particularly by the RSS-VHP and also by some other political parties and Muslim organisations. This leads to a vicious circle – it leads to the killing of innocent people, then terrorism, then more killing of innocent people. This is therefore a very dangerous development in the country.
What is the national ambition of the Aam Aadmi Party?
The Aam Aadmi Party has largely national ambitions. Delhi is only the first step towards setting right the political system in the country. Corruption, misgovernance, centralization of power, the perversion of democracy, the politics of tokenism in the name of democracy – these are not Delhi’s problems, these are pan-India problems. Therefore, these need to be dealt with in the whole country. We do hope Delhi leads to a situation where the Aam Aadmi Party is able to establish a substantial presence in the Lok Sabha in the near future and can then influence the whole political structure in the country.
Can you spell out one or two things you think are very important to change in our existing political structure?
Democracy needs to be de-centralized, power needs to be de-centralized, and we need a substantial measure of direct democracy. At the lowest level you can have direct democracy through gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas, which can take all the decisions rather than their elected representatives. At a larger level, you can have initiatives and referendums by which people can directly decide issues which they feel are important.
Whether they should be legislated upon, for example?
Yes, whether they should be legislated upon, what kind of legislation, what kind of policies and decisions, anything people think is important enough for them to sign an initiative should be put to a referendum. Thereafter, if a majority decides something, it should be immediately done.
Then we need to have a basic electoral reform. By basic, I mean that this Westminster style of democracy has in any case now become unworkable. In a diverse country like India, it is no longer possible for any one party or any coalition which comes together on any kind of ideas or principles or ideologies to get a majority in Parliament. Those days are over.
So what replaces that?
We can have a system of proportional representation coupled with a Swiss kind of government, where all parties having a certain number of seats in Parliament are represented in the government, obviously, in proportion to their strength. It is, in that sense, a national government. There is no other option. Either you move to a presidential form of government in which one person holds power. But if you have to remain in a parliamentary form then the only option is the Swiss style of national government. You can then safely opt for a proportional representation system, which is a very fair system but then no party can get a majority.
But these ideas the existing political parties are going to resist.
That is what we realised – that the existing political parties are not going to bow to the pressure of the people on even issues which affect their own survival or on issues which really cut their own hands. If you deprive them of the very power that they are enjoying and misusing, then they might as well lose the election. They are not going to agree to any of this. Therefore, we realised that we will have to at least once get in (the system), defeat them at least once in order to bring about these structural changes.
Doesn’t that mean securing a majority at least once in the Lok Sabha?
If not the majority, we need to be a dominant force in Parliament in order to drive this legislative agenda.
That’s really ambitious, right?
Yes, it is ambitious but that is the only way out for this country.
How do you look upon this situation – Laloo Prasad Yadav goes to jail, but there isn’t even a probe ordered in Robert Vadra’s accumulation of assets. Many think there is a caste bias operating.
Those who are in power, those who control the ruling establishment don’t allow their own people to be investigated. That is why when we did an internet search, we found that 15 Cabinet ministers have serious corruption charges against them. They are not being investigated. The NDA did the same during their time – there were ministers like Pramod Mahajan and many others who were involved in every kind of corruption but they were not investigated. Of course, very often even major Opposition leaders are not investigated as a quid pro quo. But sometimes they are, but certainly the ruling party members are not. The only cases in which they are being investigated are those which are court-monitored.
What I meant was that is there a caste bias in the system of punishing politicians.
I don’t think it is a caste-bias. I think it is a power-bias.
What about the massacres in Bihar in which all the accused were exonerated?
There is a caste-bias there, as also power-bias.
You defended the writer Arundhati Roy in the contempt of court case. Yet she has been one of the sharpest critics of the Aam Aadmi Party. How did you take her criticism?
She was a critic of the India against corruption movement, not so much of the Aam Aadmi Party.
You mean to say she has changed her opinion.
I think she has. But her criticism of the India against corruption movement was, to my mind, misplaced. She felt it was a corporate-driven, right-wing movement, which it was not. I think she really misunderstood the nature and the driving force of the movement merely because it had the support of all kinds of people including those from the RSS. Some people misunderstood that support and therefore got prejudiced. And I think she was also one of them.
But has she revised her opinion?
I think so.
Image Source: Prashant Bhushan