CBI vs CBI: India faces major institutional crisis, but from it will hopefully emerge a stronger democracy
The meltdown in CBI is more frightening than shocking — the implications of this implosion are chilling at many levels
The meltdown in CBI is more frightening than shocking.
No matter which side of the political divide or "camp" one leans towards, the implications of this implosion are chilling at many levels. In India, we pride ourselves on our institutions. That is what differentiates us from some of our South Asian neighbours. The Supreme Court had famously called the CBI a "caged parrot". Later, it put in place a selection process for its chief. But, it is well accepted that the party in power manages to instal a person of its choice at the helm.
The same is true, at least partially, for the other intelligence agencies like the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) or the Enforcement Directorate (ED).
Even the armed forces chiefs would have some unstated acceptability criterion. But, we have always believed, and with good reason that in India there is no "deep state" as in Pakistan. The upheaval within the CBI has rocked that confidence. The trouble does not stop at the gates of the CBI. There are allegations against a very senior R&AW officer too. His name appears in a crucial FIR against Rakesh Asthana, the deposed No 2 in the CBI. One is also hearing reports of a crisis brewing in the ED. Suddenly, every investigating agency of the government seems to be under siege.
It would be premature to comment on the merits of the CBI drama. As they say, "Picture abhi baaki hai." This is at best, the second reel of the film. Not even 'half-time'.
We do not know how the remaining acts will play out in the coming days, weeks or even in the next few months. But, the story so far itself has many lessons to ponder.
Very few believe in miracles today. So, people did not vote for Narendra Modi for the lure of Rs 15 lakh coming into their bank accounts. They also did not expect him to eradicate corruption by wielding a magic wand. The did not see him as Aladdin who would bring every dollar, euro, Swiss Franc stashed abroad back home on a carpet. But, a country tired of scams did hope that Modi would nail the scamsters of the previous era. It feels let down on that score.
None of the major investigations made any headway to write home about. The 2G case turned out to be an embarrassment. The CBI lawyers did a poor job. In a surprise judgment, the special CBI court acquitted all the main accused. Aircel-Maxis, National Herald and other high profile cases have been dragging on. Those charged are walking around firing salvos at the government with impunity. Charges of land-grabbing by the son-in-law of the Congress' first family have not led to any action.
New probes like the Sarada chit fund investigations have all but fizzled out. Big defaulters like Vijay Mallya, Mehul Choksi and Nirav Modi flew out of the country over the CBI and ED nests.
The Opposition and critics kept taking potshots at the government. But, the loyal and faithful were still willing to give Modi the benefit of doubt. They justified it by saying that Modi was going by the book. He was following the due process. Otherwise, people will accuse him of vendetta.
Apologists of the Modi administration cited the mistakes of the Janata Party in 1977. Its ham-handed retribution had turned Indira Gandhi into a martyr. They gave Modi credit for being far more circumspect. Yet, all this while there were murmurs about the rot in the system. There were Chinese Whispers about officers with old loyalties acting as saboteurs. There were many conspiracy theories doing the round. Some alleged that old puppeteers still held strings in the bureaucracy and investigating agencies.
But, even the biggest sceptic was not willing to accept that the Modi-Amit Shah duo was unaware of what was going on. They have stalwarts like Ajit Doval on the team, a legend in the world of spooks and spies. So, infiltration within their ranks could not have gone unnoticed for long.
Journalists have been writing about a "cabal". A "fifth column", as it were, working to bring down the government. Subramanian Swamy has been crying hoarse about Trojan horses in the government. But everyone assumed Modi knows everything. They were sure that, being a master of timing, he will strike at a time of his own choosing.
The denouement of the last few days came like a 7 on the Richter Scale. The question in people's minds is not what happened but how was it allowed to reach such a sorry pass? Modi has the reputation of a micro-manager, who operates like a CEO. How could he let situation slip almost out of hand, they are wondering.
That cock fights can happen even among caged parrots. is not beyond the imagination. But, how can an organisation be so deeply split down the middle without the high command having a clue? It would be rich to argue that the PMO knew, but did not intervene out of respect for the autonomy of the institution.
The fire-fighting efforts by the government paint a disturbing picture. They are reminiscent of what one sees in countries that are on the verge of a constitutional crisis. Some might even draw equivalence with Indira Gandhi's defensive reactions before declaring Emergency. But, of course, we know there is a world of difference between the India of 1975 and 2018.
First, today we have total freedom of the press. Even in such an extraordinary situation, everyone is speaking their minds. The government is being criticised in the harshest terms. Opposition leaders are and not afraid to ascribe motives to the leadership. Rahul Gandhi has suggested this is an attempt to derail the Rafale probe.
Second, the doors of the judiciary are wide open for everyone. Petitions are in court challenging the decisions of the government.
It is ironic that Swamy who had once given a clean chit to Asthana is now his fiercest opponent. Whereas, Prashant Bhushan, who had questioned Alok Verma's appointment as CBI director, is his counsel in the Supreme Court. Leaks are flying thick and fast. Stories are being planted in the press from every quarter. Twitter is abuzz with gossip. It is a veritable media circus with no holds barred.
However, the question that should be worrying everyone is whether institutions have indeed been penetrated by external elements and senior functionaries have been compromised. Do the tainted still have a hold on the innards of the vital institutions to be able to be able to derail a democratically-elected government?
It also underscores the task cut out for Modi, who — coming in as an outsider — had shown the audacity to take on the old order. This is a moment of reckoning for the democracy. The churn might be cathartic but from it, hopefully, will emerge a stronger India.
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