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The Modi factor and the fake outrage over Ishrat Jahan

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has done much to convince us that the Ishrat Jahan killing was a "fake" encounter. However, its charge-sheet in the case, and all the related developments, suggest that the agency’s autonomy is largely fake; that the UPA’s belated attempt to give the CBI a veneer of “autonomy” is intended to correct this impression and hence surely fake; and also that the “liberal” outrage over the encounter itself is fake.

All of this has happened not because of our “collective conscience” but because of a congruence of vested interests that feel threatened by the rise of one outsider to Delhi - Narendra Modi. If the man hadn’t existed, none of this would have happened. Fake encounters would have gone on as usual; the CBI would have been content to remain a “caged parrot”; the UPA would not even have dreamt of giving the CBI autonomy; the courts would probably not have taken note of the parrot’s true status; and “liberals” would not have appeared on TV expressing fake outrage over the encounter.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. AP

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. AP

The truth is Modi makes us all insecure and uncomfortable. Not because of who he is, but because of who we are.

Over the last 11 years, the full resources of the state, the media, the courts and every possible investigative agency in the land have been put to work to get one man nailed. Has this ever happened in any case in independent India? Nah!

This is how the schema has worked. If lower courts can’t implicate or nail Modi, try the higher courts; if the higher courts can’t go too far, get another investigation started; if that doesn’t work, move the courts again to appoint a SIT; if the SIT’s report is not enough, try an amicus curiae; if that doesn’t work, try another SIT in another case; if that doesn’t work, try the CBI. And so it goes on and on.

The goal is simple: keep trying till you get the verdict you want. Make everyone feel guilty that our job as liberals is not done till one man goes to jail. Nailing Modi is the cure for a system we don’t want to change.

One should ask: is the cause of justice served by spending crores and crores and hundreds of manhours of legal time trying to get one man? Or are the courts supposed to try and deliver justice for everybody? How come the courts happily spend a month or more on vacation if they were so concerned about the cause of justice?

Clearly, there is something about Modi – or rather, our response to him – that makes everyone act out of character.

Take the Congress party.

A party that till December was unwilling to govern, suddenly wakes up and starts doing things, both on the economic and political fronts.

Even more, it is willing to do enormous damage to the country to achieve its goal of keeping Modi out of power at the centre. It is willing to risk setting one intelligence agency against another and compromise national security; it is willing to send people to the gallows just to show one man up (Ajmal Kasab before the Gujarat elections, and Afzal Guru after it); it is even willing to sacrifice Manmohan Singh’s reputation to achieve the party’s larger goals (sacrifice Pawan Bansal and Ashwani Kumar, both reportedly close to Manmohan Singh). Sacrificing Bansal and Kumar was necessary to invest the CBI with some credibility and go after Modi.

In the fight against Modi, the Congress will sacrifice all its party pawns, including Manmohan Singh, if it comes to that.

One man "riding a horse" cannot solve the problems of the country, said Rahul Gandhi. But does he even believe his own statement? His party seems to think sending one man to jail will save the nation from all the evil it is surrounded by.

This is the background against which one must see the government’s moves to give the CBI autonomy.

It is a fake autonomy for three reasons.

One, merely having the opposition leader and the Chief Justice in a panel to choose the CBI chief is hardly going to make the CBI independent. The choice will be made from a short-list overseen by the government. Once chosen, the CBI will need to depend on the government for day-to-day support and staffing. The only way to guarantee autonomy is to make the CBI accountable to a multi-party parliamentary oversight committee and not the government. This is not happening.

Two, even the cosmetic nature of the government’s autonomy proposal for the CBI stems not from Congress conviction, but from fear of the courts. By announcing the proposal and submitting it in court, the Congress is trying to prevent any court directive on how this autonomy is to be achieved. It is meant to pre-empt true autonomy.
Three, the autonomy proposal is intended to protect the Congress and give it some say in the appointment of the next chief in case it loses the next election. The current chief, appointed by the party, will anyway be chief till well after the next election. So there is no worry about the “caged parrot” till after 2014. But there is a lot of scope to tinker with the autonomy proposal in case the UPA returns to power next year.

Now, to the Ishrat Jahan case.

The CBI may have established the fakeness of the encounter in the public eye – though one can’t be sure of that, given its track record in obtaining convictions in so many cases –but the very fact that it has been pussy-footing around the involvement of the Intelligence Bureau (IB’s) role in the encounter is telling. It is to hide the fact that the encounter didn't happen at the Gujarat police’s instance.

A Times of India story today says the CBI’s charge-sheet itself suggests that IB official Rajinder Kumar is the key mastermind behind the encounter, but it does not name him. Instead, it opts to make a laundry list of the Gujarat officials who did the actual dirty work. The pawns have been sacrificed to save the Queen.

This could be for two reasons. One is practical. They may go after Kumar after he retires on 31 July, and hence avoid an inter-agency squabble over arresting a serving official.

The other is clearly political. It does not serve the Congress’ purpose to have the whole case get over early. By delaying and dragging the whole process of filing the full charge-sheet it can keep Modi and the BJP permanently on tenterhooks, even while herding the Muslim vote towards itself.

Delays enable inspired leaks about “white beard” and “black beard” – presumably veiled references to Modi and Amit Shah, his close aide. The charge-sheet has nothing to speak about the colour of anybody’s beards.

The last, and saddest part, in this whole business is our fake outrage over all this. The media and the public have been taught to pretend outrage in anything involving Modi – not anyone else.

Communal riots anywhere else do not outrage us – not in Assam or UP. Encounters in Kashmir, the north-east, Punjab, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh and all the states affect by the Maoist insurgency do not outrage us beyond a day or two.

But for 11 years, we have been “outraged” by anything involving Modi. From 2002 to his various statements (“the 50-crore girlfriend”) to his growth model to the alleged fake encounters in his state.

Even in the Ishrat case we are missing one thing: nobody has bothered to tell us what benefit Modi might have seen in the elimination of the girl or the other three who were killed in that fake encounter, assuming he was even told about it.

It is most likely that the Gujarat police did what every other police force was doing everywhere else in the country – eliminate those against whom they can’t see a decent chance of securing a conviction legally – and this is why the IB was complicit in the encounter.

The truly guilty parties are those we can’t see.

One, the politicians who do not want police reforms and CBI autonomy because it does not suit them.

Two, the judicial system that delays justice for its own reasons. This is why the police kill people in encounters instead of trying hard to find the evidence to convict them.

Three, civil society, which just wants to get on with life, and let someone else solve the problems of terrorism, corruption, or every other evil confronted by society.

Modi comes into the picture not because of what he’s done, but because it is easy to pin all our guilt on one man and forget all about it. We need to change the system, but we prefer to think of Modi as the problem, not the system, since its easier. We want silver bullets.

It suits everyone to hang him without a conviction. It’s not about “innocent” Ishrat Jahan and her premature demise.