Democracy and the Rule of Law: A lesson from Norway

The head of the Norwegian police, Ole Saeverud imposed a fine of $2,352 on Erna Solberg, the two-term Prime Minister of the country for violating the COVID rules in a private party held by her.

While doing so, what Ole Saeverud said is significant . “Though the law is the same for all, all are not equal in front of the law,” said Saeverud, justifying the fine. He further added, ” It is therefore correct to issue a fine in order to uphold the general public’s trust in the rules on social restrictions,……Solberg is the country’s leader and she has been at the forefront of the restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the virus.” Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister, instead of questioning the police chief, publicly tendered an apology and paid the fine without any hesitation. Needless to say my eyes popped out when I read that bit of the news item! What does that episode mean to us in India?

Foremost, it demonstrates the trust that the people of Norway repose in the rule of law. It also demonstrates the even-handed authority exercised by the police chief in enforcing the rules, irrespective of whether the offender is an ordinary citizen or the Prime Minister of the country. One should also take note of the fact that no less than the Prime Minister of the country herself had no hesitation in bowing down to the penalty imposed by the enforcement authority, which speaks volumes of the respect that the country shows for the institution of the police and its professional autonomy.

It is not the words, but the deeds that show whether a nation is truly committed to democratic values or not.Let us turn to how the same COVID rules are enforced in India. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has invoked its authority under the Disaster Management Act (DMA) and imposed several restrictions in view of the prevailing COVID crisis. The restrictions include the wearing of face masks in public places, social distancing, limits on the size of public gatherings and so on. In addition, under Sections 269 and 270 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), consciously spreading an infectious disease in a manner that endangers human life is a serious offence punishable with imprisonment. Abetment of an offence is also an offence as per the IPC. These DMA and the IPC provisions assume added importance at a time when the virulent second wave of COVID is about to cause widespread havoc. Wearing a face mask is mandatory even when a person is driving his/ her car in a public place, according to a verdict delivered by the Delhi High Court recently. In our country, the laws are enforced with utmost severity against ordinary citizens, but not so against the authories/ the influential citizens, the modern maharajas, the medieval monarchs, who become leaders as if by a divine right.

For example, some States have been summarily imposing on-the-spot fines ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 on citizens found not wearing masks in public places. Following the court order, a citizen driving in her own car without wearing a face mask in Delhi recently found herself coughing up a fine of Rs 2,000. Can similar action be taken against influential citizens who are found to be flouting the same COVID rules with impunity?

The MHA COVID rules are applicable to all public gatherings, including the huge election rallies presently taking place in the five poll-bound States, as well as the crowded religious festivals. As far as elections are concerned, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has issued guidelines on this, though they sound more like mild, somewhat timid appeals for form’s sake, than orders issued under the DMA and the IPC. The concluding sentence in those guidelines however displays unexpected courage and determination; “it is clarified that the Commission, in case of breach, will not hesitate in banning public meetings, rallies etc., of the defaulting candidates/ star campaigners, political leaders without any further reference”. If one were to view the visual media clips of the election rallies held so far in the five States, it becomes amply clear that the star campaigners, many who occupy very high public offices at the Centre and in the States, wore no face masks, presumably because a face mask could make or unmake an election win in India. After all, our leaders thrive on misleading the voters with their contrived facial expressions and artificial gestures! Irrespective of what they really do later, it is the way they harangue the crowds that seems to matter. The political parties compete with one another and spend huge amounts to mobilise large crowds. In such meetings, with the numbers exceeding lakhs, the people are necessarily packed like sardines with no sufficient room left for niceties such as social distancing and limits on the numbers. Many among the crowds wear no face masks, following the example of the star campaigners themselves. One star campaigner even went to the extent of saying that there was no need to wear masks, as the virus had since been contained. Quite a few among the crowds were perhaps carriers of COVID themselves, making the rallies potential super-spreaders. The star campaigners were fully aware of these realities but they knew that no enforcement authority would ever dare to question them. In our
country, the senior political leaders are so high and mighty that they can do no wrong.

If one were to repose belief in the words of the ECI, since the COVID rules were openly breached, the Commission ought to have unhesitatingly banned the concerned political parties and their star campaigners from holding rallies for specified periods. One would have also expected the Commission to invoke the provisions of both the DMA and the IPC to bring to book both the star campaigners and their accomplices. There has not been a single instance of the Commission imposing such a ban till date or asking the concerned authorities to book the culprits. Apparently, neither the ECI, nor the MHA, nor much less the local police officers had the courage to book any of the star campaigners or their minions. Like the erstwhile feudal monarchs, they

consider themelvess above the law!! They seem to assume that the question of applying the rules to the high and the mighty is a ridiculous proposition in our country. After all, the rules are meant only for the hapless citizens. The citizens exist only to elect our leaders. Once elected, the leaders cannot be held accountable, till the next round of lections.

Do you wonder then, why we are often outraged at external agencies making disparaging comments on our democratic values? Our leaders, being all powerful, can they ever be wrong? Instead of over-reacting to others’ comments, should we not ponder over the diminishing role of the regulatory institutions in India, inequalities before the law of the land and the political arrogance of several of those whom we elect? Can they afford to appear “weak” like Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway? Can they ever tolerate a police chief like Ole Saeverud?

E A S Sarma, Former Secretary to Government of India


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