We've improvised on our laws so much, they're no longer what the British left us.
The British, whose departure from India was celebrated yesterday, boast they gave us laws. But the agreement between Tata and Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket chain with 2,115 stores throughout the country, is a reminder that Indian ingenuity has improved on stolid Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence by devising ways round it. If there is a law, there must also be a loophole.
Take the police right, nay duty, to arrest miscreants. But lest innocents are victimised, all democratic governments insist that the police must first seek out a magistrate, convince him of the need to apprehend someone and get him to sign a warrant for the purpose. So does India, a staunch believer in the rule of law. But we know that miscreants are slippery fellows who can vanish in the twinkling of an eye. So we allow the police to dispense with fripperies like magistrates and warrants when there is the danger of a disappearing trick.
In such exceptional cases they must ensure society’s security by arresting wrongdoers without any authorising bit of paper. The provision may have existed under the British but India’s creative genius flowered only after independence. The exception became the rule.
The duality of the Representation of the People Act is another instance. It clamps a ceiling on how much money an election candidate can spend on his campaign. It also rules that spending by a friend of the candidate’s can soar above the maximum with no questions asked and no violation to the law. The civilised compromise is in keeping with benami holdings, devattar property and Number Two accounts.
A maximum spending stipulation salves our egalitarian conscience by promising that rich and poor stand equal before the majesty of the hustings. It ensures that votes are not bought and sold, and that money power doesn’t determine how the people’s representatives are selected in the world’s largest democracy. At the same time, the exclusion of friends from the limitation imposed by the law recognises and honours the importance Indian society has always accorded to the sanctity of bonding. Such bonds are especially significant for social integration when they cut across community or ideological lines. They can introduce a measure of consensual harmony into the most divisive situations.
A Birla or a Goenka, for instance, must be applauded if he or she wants to help out a Marxist comrade who aspires to a legislative seat, especially if the benefactor has interests in the candidate’s chosen constituency. Some might even feel that the exceptional friend can be in the plural and that the clause should be extended to the Congress Party’s friends in the Samajwadi Party. True, the three Bharatiya Janata Party parliamentarians who claim to have been showered with banknotes were not taking part in an election, but they were due to vote, which comes to the same thing. One is to vote for a candidate to become an MP, the other to vote so that he can remain an MP. What are friends for if not to help out colleagues in distress? The loophole in the Representation of the People Act enshrines that principle.
We must also salute Trent, Tata’s retail arm, for gallantly coming to the rescue of Tesco which is denied an outlet in India. The law does not allow foreign retailers here unless — and here’s one exception — they are single-brand vendors. But there’s a clever way round the ban that Sunil Mittal’s Bharti group hit upon when it entered into an alliance with the American chain, Wal-Mart. Trent will be the retail seller and Tesco, which already has a sourcing network here to provide buyers in Britain with Indian foodstuff, will now also supply Trent (and possibly other retailers) staple food, fresh vegetables, grocery and other “mainly vegetarian” products.
It seems highly curious to me that Indian shopkeepers should engage a British middleman to buy from Indian farmers and sell the stuff to them so that they can in turn sell it to Indian customers. Like the distance between Kanpur and Nagpur in the old children’s riddle (answer: the span of five fingers), there must be a simpler way for Tata to set up shop. But Tata wants Tesco’s expertise, and Tesco wants a presence in India. One law may say no but another allows the two demands to be reconciled.
It’s a sound system, but somewhat unnecessarily cumbersome. Life would be altogether more simple and streamlined if we did away with all laws and had only loopholes and exceptions. They are what really matters.
6 months ago