07 September 2006

Guilty Until Otherwise

It was in DPP v. Woolmington that the phrase 'golden thread' entered common law and immortality. The principle that an accused is innocent until proven guilty is the 'golden thread' than ran through all of criminal law. This principle is the fault line at which the criminal law of any civilized society distinguishes itself from the Napoleanic or Kafkaesque. However, what is true of criminal law, need not be true elsewhere. Particularly in politics.

Bill Clinton was guilty long before the Starr Report, much less a trial. Natwar Singh's image of adroit Nehruvian cleanliness was forever tainted by Volcker and Pathak Inc., much like Rajiv Gandhi's at the first whiff of Bofors. Scandal in politics cannot be wished away. Once a decision to enter public life has been made, the risk of a tainted image is inescapable. Unlike a criminal trial, a comeback is not always possible; an accusation remains - atleast in newspaper and video archive.

The most problematic part of a scandal is that it stalls governance. If the accused is an office-bearer of government, then there is little chance that any work gets done. Endless public time is spent on refuting allegations, so much so that the most prudent course of action might be to resign without fuss. But politicians as a breed are street-fighters and a resignation is an admission of defeat. No one wants to go that way.

P J Joseph, veteran Kerala Congress politician, was accused of misbehaving with a co-passenger in an aeroplane. Yesterday, he submitted his resignation. The IG's report on the matter did not indict him. It merely suggested that further investigation may be required.

The tacit agreement is that he will return to his portfolio when his name is cleared. All things considered, that was probably the best route to go.

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