Suspension: Neither here nor there

The arrest of Katta Jagadish Naidu, ward councillor from Vasanthnagar, by the Lokayukta last week is a milestone; some years from now we will look back on this as a key moment in the emergence of a new politics in the city. Already one other corporator is in the dock on similar grounds, but that was – fortunately for him – before the Lokayukta acquired new biceps. Katta Jr. faces an altogether different challenge.

The politics of the city and the state have revolved around ‘land’ and its development for many years now. Mining, akrama, notification and denotification – these are all many heads of the same hydra. For too long, we have fed this beast a steady diet of nutritious food, with the result that it has now grown quite big. Either we kill it now, or it will consume us.

Many months ago, ABIDe had recommended to the Chief Minister that this whole business of land acquisition, notification and denotification, needs a massive overhaul. It is evident to anyone who is watching that no public purpose is served by the BDA’s land acquisition. Purportedly for housing developing, most recently acquired land has led to speculation rather than homes for anyone, and thousands of farmers have been dispossessed unfairly. KIADB has a similarly dubious record; much of the land acquired by it has seen no industrial development whatsoever.

The Land Acquisition Act itself is more than a century old, dating back to colonial times – which should itself serve as an indication that it is an instrument of oppression, rather than some development tool. That the Central and State governments persist with this law today is tragic. The Centre has moved belatedly to amend this law, but tinkering with it will not be enough. It would be much better to scrap it altogether, and redefine the basis for compulsory acquisition of private assets.

But back to the two corporators of the BBMP caught red-handed by the Lokayukta. One has been suspended already from the BBMP Council, and the other is likely to face similar punishment. The BJP state government, having suspended the Congress corporator from Ganesh Mandir ward in very similar circumstances, can hardly let one of its own people off with anything less.

This raises an important question – of course corrupt representatives should be punished, but is ‘suspension’ the correct response? Is it even legal?

Any accused person, even someone who has been caught in the act of a crime, deserves a full and fair trial. Thus, neither of the two councillors can be presumed guilty rightaway. At the same time, the sanctity of public offices must be protected from those who would hide behind the letter of the law to retain their power and authority. ‘Suspension’, therefore, is seen as a kind of middle ground between outright removal on the one hand, and doing nothing on the other. By suspending a member, some of his privileges are revoked, while the conclusive decision on his guilt is awaited.

There is, however, another point of concern. As in any other ward, in Ganesh Mandir and in Vasanthnagar too, citizens naturally expect their corporators to represent their interest in the city council. How can this happen if the elected members are suspended from membership in the council? Clearly, seen from this light, suspension in as good as removal, leaving the constituents deprived of representation in various actions of the council that is bound to affect their lives.

This paradox can be addressed very simply. The state government, rather than recommending suspension of a councillor, should instead call for a full vote of the council on the continuance of the accused. In effect, a no-confidence motion should be conducted in the council, with compulsory voting for the members. Either the accused councillors stay on as corporators and meet their legal problems in parallel, or they are removed by the power of the elected body itself.

Some would argue that this would end up as a meaningless exercise, that a BJP-majority council would naturally vote to retain Katta Jr. among itself. I agree this cannot be ruled out, but I’m not so sure of it, either. When elected representatives are called upon to transparently demonstrate their views to their constituents, surprising things can happen. In any case, if the council votes to remove the Congress corporator, it can hardly take a different view of a BJP member. Moreover, even if a municipal body were to diminish itself by voting to keep obviously tainted members, the legal case against those members would continue.

Ashwin Mahesh
About Ashwin Mahesh 86 Articles

Ashwin Mahesh has been involved in public policy for Bengaluru through his work with the Karnataka government. The views expressed here are his own. He is a member of the Lok Satta party. He is also CEO of Mapunity Information Services, and a director at Oorvani Media, publisher of Citizen Matters and India Together. He is also a visiting faculty with the Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore.