Ever since the Manmohan Singh government became embroiled in scams, it has been mainly the Supreme Court that has pushed for accountability.
In doing so, it has taken recourse to a new technique for ascertaining the truth – that of virtually appropriating to itself the task of inquiry by directing the official agencies, either the police or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), to conduct the probes under the judiciary’s aegis.
It has been an eminently successful method. In Gujarat, for instance, the Special Investigating Teams (SIT) set up to inquire into the Narendra Modi government’s role during and after the 2002 riots have performed reasonably well.
The main feature of these probes is that the governments, whether in the states or at the centre, have no role to play. Now, for the first time, this dividing line has been breached. And, the suspect is none other than the country’s law minister, Ashwani Kumar. Besides, his alleged vetting of the CBI’s report relates to the coalgate scandal in which the prime minister’s name has been mentioned because he was once the coal minister. The suspicion, therefore, is that he was trying to protect Manmohan Singh, perhaps on his own.
The Supreme Court’s outrage is understandable – it has described the act of overseeing of the report as an “erosion” of trust by the CBI – because the intervention by the minister, bureaucrats of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and law officers like the attorney general has negated the very purpose of the court-monitored investigation, which is to ensure its credibility by keeping the government at arm’s length.
It is as if Gujarat’s tainted minister, Amit Shah, has checked the SIT’s report on the fake encounter cases with which he is associated.
It is obvious that from now on, the scene will become murkier as the Supreme Court tries to “liberate” the CBI from official control, as it has vowed to do. First, more skeletons will tumble out of the cabinet as the court examines the CBI’s affidavits on who saw the report, what changes were made, were there any deletions or additions, etc.
Secondly, as a result of these revelations, the government will continue to be on the back foot with the opposition and the media relentlessly harassing it. Its prospects, therefore, of approaching the next round of elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi with any degree of confidence is remote.
However, there may still be a silver lining to this gloomy scenario for the general public. Irrespective of how disheartening the current spell of “judicial activism” is for the government – and, indeed, for the entire political class, for no party wants an independent CBI – the democratic system itself is likely to benefit.
For a start, the CBI’s functional autonomy may be finally assured and, along with it, a revival of the move to implement the Supreme Court’s 2006 order on police reforms, to which the state governments have so far turned a deaf ear. As a former CBI director, R.K. Raghavan, said after the latest incident, no law minister will want to oversee the CBI’s reports even for “grammatical errors”, as has been suggested in the present case.
The reason for Ashwani Kumar’s enthusiasm is obvious. The Indian politicians have been so accustomed to using the police and official agencies – the enforcement directorate, the income-tax authorities, et al – for partisan purposes that Ashwani Kumar apparently thought nothing of checking what the CBI had found on the coal scam. Nor did the CBI director, Ranjit Sinha, find anything wrong with his inquisitiveness. As Sinha has confessed, his organisation is a wing of the government and that he had shown the report to a minister and not an outsider.
However, there are factors other than the subservience of officials and the political propensity to misuse supposedly autonomous institutions which are at work here. It is the decline in the moral calibre of individuals involved in governance.
Arguably, in an earlier age, neither would a minister have blatantly interfered in the preparation of a report on the government’s controversial role nor would an official have meekly responded to the summons to carry the files meant for the judiciary to a minister. It is also self-evident that the scams themselves – on the Commonwealth Games, the 2G spectrum and coal block allocations – are an indication of falling standards.
The country must be thankful that the judiciary at the highest levels – though not always lower down – remains free of taint and dedicated to the cause of ensuring honesty in public life. It is frightening to think what might have happened otherwise.
With a government mired in allegations of sleaze, and an opposition seeing the disruption of parliament as the only way to keep itself in the public eye, the task of cleansing the system has fallen on the judiciary, with the “fourth estate”, the media, ensuring that none of the political shenanigans remains hidden.
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