Destabilising institutions

Modi Raj

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally ahead of the Karnataka state assembly elections in Bengaluru. REUTERS file photo

Prime Minister Modi and the BJP have been making loud and lofty claims that his government has been clean as a crystal; the BJP’s 2014 manifesto promised “minimum government, maximum governance”, “transparency in administration”, Lokpal to control corruption, autonomy and empowerment of institutions. Firstly, four and a half years later, where is the Lokpal? But against this background, we see the CBI divided, RBI divided, judiciary divided, and yet, we now have the world’s tallest statue, a ‘Statue of Unity’!

The CBI has never been in such a deep crisis as today since its establishment. How and why did Gujarat-cadre IPS officer Rakesh Asthana become the focal point of the crisis? Because he was brought in there by no less than the PM himself. Asthana was introduced to Modi by LK Advani, who apparently also suggested that Asthana was the right man to probe the Godhra incident in 2002!

Asthana was asked to supervise the probe into the attack on Kar Sevaks at Godhra railway station and the subsequent state-wide violence. He promptly endorsed Modi’s statement that it was a pre-planned attack instigated by a Muslim cleric. Cut to 2016, and Asthana is appointed additional director and later promoted as special director of CBI, overlooking Director Alok Verma’s objections that Asthana was facing serious charges of corruption.

The CBI’s internal reports indicate that Verma was considering an inquiry into the Rafale fighter jet deal. Asthana couldn’t be expected to ignore it, since his role was to track politically-sensitive cases. Following his ‘compulsory leave’ order, Verma stated in his petition to the Supreme Court that Asthana was coming in the way of investigation against prominent political leaders. Also, CBI had recently filed an FIR against Asthana for accepting a bribe from a businessman, and the investigation was in progress. It has also been reported that the probe against Asthana might well have revealed the gist of tapped telephone chats of senior officials in the prime minister’s office (PMO) that would be most embarrassing to everyone around!

Asthana, in turn, had filed a complaint to the Vigilance Commission charging Verma with corruption and the CVC recommended to the PMO that Verma also be probed. That it was a mere “complaint” — in reality, a “counter complaint” — didn’t seem to matter to the CVC and PMO.

The decision to send both Verma and Asthana on leave was taken by the PMO between midnight and 2 am.

Why such a midnight “surgical strike” against the CBI? PM Modi’s “Tryst with CBI in darkness” is in glaring contrast with Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” at midnight on 14 August, 1947, heralding India’s Independence! 

Curiously, the Supreme Court didn’t take cognisance of the cases against Asthana when it rejected Verma’s plea to declare unlawful the PMO’s order sending him on leave. The court’s treatment of the two as ‘similar’ seemed unsatisfactory. The court also asked the CVC to complete its enquiry against Verma in two weeks but excluded Asthana from this. It is also not quite clear whether, under the Criminal Procedure Code, the same investigation officer can consider both the cases and whether the same judge can take up the two cases. 

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley would have us believe that sending the two officers on (indefinite) leave, transfer of officers investigating Asthana, and the appointment of an interim director were meant to ensure a ‘fair’ and impartial probe into the CBI crisis!

The Supreme Court didn’t think so. It forbid the interim director from taking any policy or major decisions and said that his decisions taken until the court’s order would be reviewed. It prescribed a time limit of two weeks for the CVC’s probe against Verma and, most unpleasantly for Jaitley and BJP, the CVC’s investigation itself was to be supervised by former SC judge A K Patnaik. The implications were quite clear -- the court didn’t accept the CVC’s ability to be fair in the backdrop of its approval to appoint Asthana as ‘special director’.

Ingenious routes exist to control institutions. You can simply bypass even constitutional bodies, as was done in the case of demonetisation.

Modi’s decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes two years ago was not considered and ‘recommended’ by RBI as mandated in Sec 26(2) of the RBI Act; it was not taken to the union cabinet for approval but was announced unilaterally by the PM.

Governments can manipulate institutions from within, as in the case of CBI, or use statutory authority to restrain/delay a time-honoured process, as in the appointment of judges, or shunt out Nobel Prize-winning Economist Amartya Sen from Nalanda University, appoint pliant heads to central universities and other institutes of science and technology.

Most recently, the government replaced some renowned intellectuals with its ‘yes men’ at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library to implement its plan to change that institution’s character and devalue Jawaharlal Nehru’s place in the Independence movement and discredit his emphasis on India’s multi-cultural ethos and reality and secularism. Not just this, BJP chief Amit Shah and NDA ministers have even sought to tell the Supreme Court what it ought to do in matters of ‘faith’, referring to Ayodhya and Sabarimala issues.

In all this, the agenda is clear: the RSS and BJP’s ideology, handed down by V D Savarkar and K B Hedgewar, must be implemented via important institutions charged with decision-making in economic/financial, social, educational, cultural and political matters. The BJP and Sangh Parivar repeatedly express that the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression, independent judiciary and media, federalism, rights of the minorities and secularism is just not compatible with their ‘Hindutva’ project. Hindutva refers to the idea of Hindu Rashtra but is nothing more than a tool of political mobilisation. These are omens of the coming future.

(The writer, a Congress leader, was chairman, Karnataka Legislative Council)

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