Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
CHIEF Minister Narendra D Modi of Gujarat made several promises to the electorate, of which two are haunting and being remembered each day by voters. The first was that Rs 15 lakhs would be deposited in the bank accounts of every citizen of India after Modi (once made Prime Minister) would get back an estimated $ 1.2 trillion of illicit cash deposited by citizens of India in banking havens. The other was a related vow that he would ensure that corruption was eliminated in the functioning of government. Although Modi had more than a year to prepare for what he would do in the event he became PM, the team of officials that he chose was almost the same as that which had clustered around Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. Several of them were themselves regarded as being less than honest, while overall, the record of both Vajpayee as well as Manmohan Singh in fighting corruption was disappointing, although it must be said that in the case of the latter, at least three Union Cabinet Ministers were forced to quit when they came under scanner with allegations of corruption, while a Cabinet minister (Andimuthu Raja) went to jail during that period.
Thus far, Prime Minister Modi has had no success in sending even a single senior minister of the period of complete Sonia Gandhi rule (2004-2014) to prison. Indeed, several of those who had been facing charges under Manmohan Singh have had the relief of these charges being dismissed by either the courts or the investigating agencies. Every few days, reports get carried in the media about investigations” and raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Direct Taxes (CBDT) on miscellaneous individuals, but little appears to have been done in the way of follow up. The primary “corruption fighter” of the Government of India is the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC). During this official’s tenure in the Income-tax department, there was raid after raid on High Net Worth individuals, creating much gossip about how those raided dealt with situation in private.
CVC Chaudhry is clearly an individual who works night and day, for he took the extraordinary step of forcing the Director of the premier anti-corruption investigating agency (CBI ) to go on leave, replacing him with Nageshwar Rao, a relatively junior officer with a reputation that is not entirely saintly. The change took place at 1am on Wednesday. The new boss took charge after instructions were reported in the media to have been given by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, whose remit does not usually cover the CBI. The involvement of Doval made it possible for opposition leaders to place the blame for the early morning shakeout at the doorsteps of Prime Minister Modi, as Doval is the official closest to the PM just as Arun Jaitley is the minister closest to Modi. However, it is likely that it was not the PM but the CVC who asked for his assistance in enforcing an unprecedented decision with grave implications for the anti-corruption battle in the country.
In these days of social media, it is child’s play for frustrated officials to leak information through the internet, and now that he has been appointed Director of the CBI, every hour titbits are billowing out about Rao. The CVC earlier worked in close proximity with two Sonia-era Finance Ministers ( P Chidambaram and P Mukherjee), but it would be unfair to suggest that the decision he took to send the now ex-CBI Director on forced leave was motivated by anything other than what he saw as an administrative necessity. However, the move has had the unintended consequence of diluting the image of the Modi government in the matter of probity, and has given opposition parties an effective whip with which to flog even the Prime Minister relentlessly. The CBI Director had anyway only a few more days left in his tenure. In a earlier case of another CBI chief,Ranjit Sinha, the Modi government allowed him to finish his term of office rather than cut it short soon after the new PM was sworn in on May 26, 2014. Judging by the alacrity with which incoming CBI Director Rao removed each of the officers investigating Rakesh Asthana, the deputy chief of the CBI, who has been accused by ex-Director Alok Verma of corruption, it is clear that the new boss is no fan of his predecessor. Interestingly, although Asthana also has been sent on leave, none of the team of officers around him has been affected by the change in Director. A few days ago, it was being mentioned within CBI headquarters that Asthana would soon be in prison. Instead, it would seem that the CVC has ensured the premature ( by a few days) exit of his nemesis,Alok Verma as also the early morning transfer of key officers working on the corruption case against Asthana. The lead investigator has been sent as far away as Port Blair in the Andaman islands, the furthest point barring the waters of the Indian Ocean where the unfortunate officer could have been moved.
Unlike others who accept decisions taken at the top stoically, ex-CBI Director Alok Verma has filed a complaint before the Supreme Court of India asking for the orders of forced leave be rescinded as illegal. The Supreme Court is now headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, who has a reputation for both integrity as well as independence. Verma has,in true bureaucratic tradition, kept away from the public much of the details of hid complaint against the Government of India. The opposition has even brought in defense and other deals to claim that Verma was hastily moved out of his cabin to stop him from investigating them. Prime Minister Modi will need to convince the people of India that he has delivered on his promise of clean government and the creation of jobs on a scale sufficient to ensure that young people find work. The allegations against the CVC may be motivated and Chowdhary may be a paragon of virtue, as also the other dramatis personae in the drama being played out on television screens about the heart of the anti-corruption machinery of the Modi government.
But his 1am decision has had the effect of casting a shadow over the Government of India that is unlikely to dissipate in a hurry. Had he consulted Prime Minister Modi before taking the decision he did, perhaps the present ruckus may have been avoided. The Prime Minister is known to be cautious, but he needs to warn the officers closest to him not to be present at controversial venues such as the never before witnessed sending on leave of the CBI Director and the immediate transfer of the entire team of officers investigating Asthana. Why the new CBI Director took such a step is a mystery. An immediate explanation is needed, as opposition politicians have several times made the charge that the former deputy chief of the CBI is a favourite of the PM. Admirers of Narendra Modi are clear that while the PM may be polite to officials, he has no favourites.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.