Rajasthan ordinance row: Raje move is Rajiv Gandhi's anti-defamation redux

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje
In July 1988, 44 months in office and commanding a Lok Sabha majority not seen before or since, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and his government first pushed through an anti-defamation Bill in the Lok Sabha. However, the Bill was withdrawn from the Rajya Sabha a little over a month later in the face of strident protests from journalists, lawyers, and politicians.

The episode is somewhat reminiscent of the ongoing attempt by the Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan to push through the Rajasthan Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill 2017. The Bill seeks to bar courts from taking up complaints against ministers, judges, and officials without government sanction, and also puts curbs on the media on reporting on such cases. Violators can be jailed for up to two years.

There are a few similarities between the episode in 1988 and that in 2017. While saner sense had prevailed in the case of Gandhi, the Raje government on Monday referred the Bill to a select committee of the Assembly.

In 1988, the Gandhi-led Congress regime was battling the perception that he led a corrupt government which was embroiled in the Bofors gun kickback scam. The Rajiv Gandhi government's anti-defamation Bill sought to create new offences of "criminal imputation" and "scurrilous writings". It had also proposed another Bill that would have given the central government authority to collect extensive technical and financial information from newspapers and book publishers. That Bill was also later withdrawn in the face of protests.

If Rajiv Gandhi had a massive majority in the Lok Sabha then, the Raje government enjoys a two-third majority in the Rajasthan Assembly. Of late, there have been several protests against the Raje government by farmers because of agrarian distress, and against some of its land acquisitions.

If the Rajiv Gandhi government was preparing to face a Lok Sabha election then in a little over a year period by the end of 1989, so does the Raje government today. The Assembly election in Rajasthan is slated for December 2018. The Raje government, just as the Rajiv Gandhi government did in 1988, is saddled with anti-incumbency.

When the Rajiv Gandhi government pushed through the anti-defamation Bill in the Lok Sabha, countrywide protests ensued. Journalists hit the streets and there was trenchant criticism of the proposed Bill as draconian. Senior Congress leaders also advised Gandhi to drop the Bill. Senior BJP leaders in the BJP have also raised their voice against the Bill that Raje government has introduced.

In 1988, on at least two occasions, reporters asked Union cabinet ministers at press conferences if they supported the Bill. When they answered in the positive, the reporters walked out of the press conference room. Several other ministers cancelled their press conferences fearing a similar treatment.

After the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in July, Rajiv Gandhi himself issued a press statement on September 4, after a Cabinet meeting, which stated that his government respected the freedom of the press. It was barely a decade ago that the Indira Gandhi government had imposed the Emergency and had not only lost power in the subsequent elections in 1977, but also received much ignominy.

The Rajiv Gandhi government saw sense in withdrawing its anti-defamation Bill. Let us see if the Raje government would be able to show that level of maturity, or the chief minister would be counted among those remembered in history as a leader who worked to erode democracy.

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