Institutions in crisis-II

Source: By Tuktuk Ghosh: The Statesman

Maximum governance and minimum government, the winning credo of 2014, was effortlessly replaced with ubiquitous acquiescent governance and ubiquitous government. Policymaking would no longer be done old-style. Existing processes were felled. An unstated low-grade fear-factor became a harsh reality. Collective decision-making made way for the preferred ultra-centralized alternative. Primacy was accorded to efficient implementation. Savvy event-management and outreach arms of the Government were revved into overdrive mode to harness political rewards. Dissent was artfully controlled.

To keep on permanent tenterhooks the suspected “other”, institutions dealing with scrutiny, enquiries, investigations, probes, raids, prosecutions and functions related to enforcing the strong arm of the State acquired added sheen and value. Burnished, recrafted narratives of the past were put together and minds tethered to reconfigured retellings. Institutions in such spaces, including academic ones, were packed with trusted persons from the inner track.

These were certainly not original strategies but selectively recycled from the past and finessed for big- bang impact. A striking feature of this canvas, though perfectly in keeping with practice and precedent, was that Institutions were more than comfortable to flaunt their “UseMe” status.

Though predicted, implosions are highly unlikely in this idyllic setting of complete compliance. It is naïve to hyperventilate about the fallout of institutional takeovers as they are part of well-tested and tried continuums, having unfailingly worked to the utmost satisfaction of the political class. An imagined grandeur of messianic achievement has been carefully etched to provide an aura of distinctiveness to this drastically reformulated governance style. The Statue of Unity, the world’s tallest, being set up in record time at a whopping cost of about Rs 3000 crore, because a wish is a command, is a case in point.

New India, you may be made to believe or is it the new normal? The ugly fracas within the premier investigating Agency, the CBI, dominating headlines, may perhaps be more comprehensible, when viewed through this prism. In spite of a seemingly robust legal framework, with a pre-eminent supervisory role for the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), it was easy enough to shut out the experienced Special Director, SK Dutta, handling many high-profile, politically sensitive cases, to make way for Rakesh Asthana, reportedly with the right connections, against whom there were allegations of receiving illicit money from the promoters of Sterling Biotech, embroiled in a Rs. 5,000 crore scam.

It was also easy enough to appoint as Director Alok Verma, who had zero prior experience in the CBI, as required by the eligibility criteria, in spite of the reservations expressed by Mallikarjun Kharge, Member of the Selection Committee.

Government evidently failed the institution in order to serve its own agenda and in turn, the institution failed itself. For a couple of months, Government and CVC let the top two slug it out, hurling accusations of corruption and gross misdemeanor against each other, choosing to view it as an “internal matter”, as it had done when the quartet of Supreme Court Judges had gone public on 12 January, ominously declaring democracy to be in danger. When things did not work out the same way, a midnight swoop ~ colourfully termed a coup ~ was conducted on 23 October and both were sent packing.

Being way beyond the scope of sections 4, 4 A and 4B of the Delhi Police Special Establishment Act, as well as Section 8 (1) of the Central Vigilance Commission Act, this was dragged to court. Incidentally, the CVC’s appointment in 2015 had been unsuccessfully challenged in a PIL. With no holds barred, CBI’s legal battle is being played out in three different Courts. In the Supreme Court, the Bench under the Chief Justice, in the case filed by the Director and the NGO, Common Cause, is examining the largely uncomplimentary CVC Enquiry Report against the Director, prepared under the supervision of retired Justice A.K. Patnaik.

The response of the Director, though meant to remain confidential in a sealed-cover, is in the public domain. Mallikarjun Kharge has joined in with an interlocutory petition, crying foul. DIG Manish Kumar Sinha, in a copy-cat application, has added the attention hooking touch of scandal by levelling unverified charges against many top-notch Government honchos. Delhi High Court is hearing a clutch of petitions filed by Special Director, DSP Devendra Kumar and alleged middleman, Manoj Prasad.

The CJI’s infuriated outburst during the hearing on 20 November that none of the petitioners deserved to be heard while the institution’s dignity was being media-shredded, was sharp and hard-hitting. A nail-biting thriller, by all accounts, tracked by millions keen to know if this may be the beginning of a new genre of governance. While analysts and former CBI officers have offered many relief and rescue recommendations to get the badly-battered institution back on track, it is unlikely that they will be actioned in this altered milieu.

The holier-than-thou position of political parties is grossly opportunistic and laughably hypocritical. They are all guilty of abusing the institution to the hilt when in power. The claim by Rahul Gandhi that the Director has been caught in the cross-fire related to the Government-to-Government Rafale defence deal investigation is farfetched. No CBI investigation was known to be on the table. In a riveting twist, an investigation of sorts is now on the Supreme Court’s table, having landed there through PILs. Being an unanticipated turning point in our governance history its trajectory is a subject of fervid speculation.

Courts are now where the action is. Judicial intervention has been sought by the aggrieved for some time past as existing systems have turned supremely insensitive. Courts have revelled in the activist mode,” the last bastion of hope”, bordering on overreach into the Executive’s domain. There is a crying need for rebalancing. Instead, the messy drift moves on unchecked, engendering foreseeable lockjam and jurisdictional conflict.

To avert a hazardous eventuality of a constitutional identity crisis, a decisive push has to come from the wellspring of democracy, the people, buttressed by well-informed dialogue, unlike what is currently on display. Overwhelming power lust, fueling short-circuiting of norms needs incineration, with the ECI playing an innovatively sanitizing role. Serious national issues need to be red-flagged and heeded. The demand for delivery on the constitutional mandate is not a big ask though it has been made to appear near unachievable, in an inexplicable travesty. It is time for some collective heavy-lifting to put the guardrails firmly back in place.