Politics beyond the noose

This is not a question of being evasively even-handed between the state and its critics. For what it's worth, this column has consistently argued against the death penalty. Every hanging is potentially a dark day for justice. It has also pointed out that even the courts make mistakes. In this instance, though, at least from the outside, there does not seem to be damning evidence of bad faith in the judicial process itself. The courts took a call, with all the attendant imperfections that are associated with the process. And we have to give that call some presumptive authority; and the state has to act upon it.

But there is a question about the narrative surrounding the execution. There is a good reason for granting the executive some discretion over the administering of the death penalty. It would be a mistake to take away that discretion. This discretion gives more opportunity to wrestle with any residual doubts the executive might have in death penalty cases; they are in a special class. It is rightly premised on the idea that executions can be political acts, not in a narrow partisan sense, but in the sense that larger political issues affecting the nation can be taken into account. The question is not one of discretion, but whether it can be exercised credibly and fairly. And here is where the state fails. It has failed to project its own credibility for several reasons.

The biggest threat to the credibility of the Indian state is loose-talking politicians and officials. Justice must not just be done; in a state that cares for legitimacy it must be seen to be done. We can only speculate on the immediate political logic that drove the timing of the decision. But, politics apart, the executive does have a structural crisis of credibility: its own conduct makes it untrustworthy. One day Digvijaya Singh is casting doubt on the integrity of the state and castigating it for false prosecutions. The next day he is evoking the same state to shore up the Congress's credentials on the war on terror. Sushilkumar Shinde, one day, makes grave accusations of the RSS and the BJP being associated with terror and then fails to follow through on the logic of his own argument; the next day, he is trying to project a state above politics. The irony of the Congress, in public, trying to shore up its credentials on the war on terror, while Narendra Modi goes on about growth, is not being lost. It is lending credence to the suspicion that the Congress, perhaps even more than the BJP, has an investment in keeping communalism alive as a political issue. The BJP, for its part, will never learn the lesson that a credible justice system requires a certain matter-of-factness in civil society; not a breast-beating call for death. When you look at the conduct of this lot, it has been hard not to harbour doubts about the kind of considerations that move their decisions. This is a real political problem. They demand from citizens a presumptive authority in the state. But they have done precious little to make it credible. This crisis is only going to get exacerbated.

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