17 - 01 - 2019

The dance of puppets in CBI

Years ago, during the Cold War, where many of us spent our childhood, a famous comic strip kept us company. It gave us a sense of corruption, power and also the anxiety and insanity of power.

The strip was in MAD magazine, and it was called Spy vs Spy. Originated by Antonio Prohia, a Cuban emigre, it sought to explain the Cold War through the subtle and surreal comic strip. While Americans in the sixties could at least laugh at power, Indians take power too seriously. It seems it is the only real aphrodisiac for the Indian Male. As a result, the newspapers miss out the slapstick but lethal nature of power struggles in India. One was thinking of Spy vs Spy as one read about the Asthana vs Kumar battle in the CBI. 

The irony begins just there. The CBI, an autonomous organisation, is supposed to be neutral, objective and truthful. But no organisation in recent times has been a dance of puppets as the CBI. The case of Ranjeet Sinha comes immediately to mind. The sad fact is the agency for all its legendary autonomy has been an immaculate puppet. As Lord Acton said, ``Power corrupts while absolute power corrupts absolutely'. A study of India would tell him, a sidekick to power gets corrupted absolutely and sordidly as well.

Reading the recent scandals, one realises two things. First, the battle in the CBI between Asthana and Verma is real but it is also a shadow play. It is really a battle between politicians like Amit Shah, the corporations and other forces. Amit Shah looks immaculate and untouched while the officers absorb the pollution. What is more intriguing is that the one man at the pinnacle of power and responsibility, Narendra Modi, remains untouched, a Tussad's like distance, which makes one wonder what his role in all this is. The CBI is directly under the PM and to grant him ritual distance from all this is both polite and surreal. 

Secondly, it is very clear that the CBI has lost all sense of autonomy. It has become a favourite hunting ground of politicians to fight their proxy wars. So the surrogate war between Asthana and Verma has power players hidden in the background. In terms of governance, the CBI is a warped agency which validates every suspicion against it. Sadly, one also realises that power is like musical chairs and with the change in power, hunter and hunted reverse directions. All it requires is a transfer of roles. Even that may not be necessarily given the sycophancy of the bureaucracy. 

Classic watchers of the CBI will always tell you, "Corruption always has a genealogy, a creation of myth." Each act of corruption has its own special source. Corruption today in the CBI goes back to what has been dubbed amicably as 'the Gujarat connection'. When Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and his team entered Lutyen's Delhi, they realised power needed backups. They brought with them a team of loyal officers who played out 'the master's voice'. Heading the team was PK Mishra but accompanying them were pliant yes men who could clean up after their masters. Among them was YC Modi who cleaned up the memory of the Gujarat riots and Rakesh Asthana, a Gujarat cadre officer, who investigated the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra. These men were the Swacch Andolan of the men in power letting them behave with a holier than thou attitude. By absorbing pollution and by polluting others, they made sure that the Modi Government looked immaculate in power. The Swacch Andolan should have begun with the CBI which is more polluted than the Yamuna.

Yet what is interestingly as an exercise in understanding governance and its corruptibility is the way Asthana came to power. A favourite of the regime, he would have been head of CBI if his activities had not come under the scrutiny of Prashant Bhushan whose role in unmasking corruption is classic. Yet one must say something for the rules, because it is rules of seniority, the arrogance of the appointment committee in ignoring rules that put Asthana at the centre of the controversy. To have Asthana as head of CBI would have been convenient for BJP before the 2019 elections. If Congress had not caused a ritual objection, he would have been head. As a result of protests a fresh list had to be framed which allowed Verma to become numero uno.

However, power games do not end so easily. Bureaucrats in power retire and Verma's term was scheduled to end in January 2019. Asthana was the obvious favorite till he got implicated in corruption. As the story goes, he has been serving his masters and what was revealing was the CBI’s ruthlessness in hunting down the opposition. Its cost was obvious - institutional decline -exaggerated by the refusal to appoint a Lokpal. The Modi regime for all its institutional piety was caught on the wrong foot on the CBI. The stench of Gujarat now extends to the CBI.

To describe this battle as media tends to do as a turf war is not accurate. The turf is not an official bureaucracy but the whole of India and the future of democracy. Consider a prima facie case, if the organisation to investigate corruption is corrupt, what does one say about the institutional integrity of India? Listing out the directory of corruption stories only indicates the extent of corruption and voyeuristic sense of power. What one has to look at is the hypocrisy of power and how this hypocrisy is intensified by the breakdown of institutions like the CBI. Overplaying the Asthana vs Verma struggle as one of personalities alone tells us little. The simple fact is that the rule of law does not exist in agencies responsible for the law. The ordinary citizen watches helplessly as the story is played out, wondering whether even a temporary relief from the redundancy of corruption is available.

 Shiv Vishwanathan