If you are an optimist like I am, you would see a silver lining in the royal mess we are witnessing in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which has lately been rechristened as the Central Bureau of Infighting after its No. 1 and No. 2 accused each other of irregularities and started investigating each other instead of the welter of corruption cases plaguing India.
But we ought to have known better. Ever since the Modi government came to power, fighting corruption has been its chosen plank. The problem, however, is the "Gujarat model" of picking favourite officers to fight politically promised battles is not an easy one. Simply put, we are witnessing a case of Chanakya-era style of a Hindu king using handpicked loyalists in his durbar-style governance being superimposed on a Westminster system of administration inherited from British rule under which the civil servants are largely independent.
In the Westminster system, you usually trust the bureaucracy, of which the CBI is a part, and do not violate its procedures. When officers don't play ball, you transfer them gently to nondescript departments. The civil servant is not really a servant, as we learned in the hilarious episodes of the BBC comedy, Yes, Minister. However, the Modi government has bitten off more than it can chew -- or at least wants to. Last week, former BJP minister and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leading critic now, Arun Shourie, joked that in Gujarat, civil servants were "civil...(pause)...servants".
Whether it is in surprising the country with a demonetisation of high-value currency notes or in the running of the country's premier investigation agency, the Modi government has relied on its chosen people rather than traditional processes, and has substantially bypassed the bureaucracy than enlist its help. This brings in risks of the kind the government has been facing already.
It is, of course, a huge challenge when corruption is endemic in the system and you use the bureaucracy to tackle corruption. While we may shed a tear or two for the ostensibly noble intent of the Modi government, we may add that it is not advisable to rush in where angels fear to tread. What seems to have happened in the CBI case is that the No.1, Alok Verma, felt sidelined.
Experience tells me that army officers, police officers and bureaucrats take their hierarchical prestige very seriously, and being sidelined in favour of a junior can trigger sparks of vengeance. So we can see a comic Yes, Minister episode assuming the dark colours of a Netflix-run Sacred Games with its thriller skulduggery. With very un-sacred consequences, as we witnessed last week, when the government moved like Pakistan's coup-loving army one dark night to remove the two warring super cops from office. With the matter now placed firmly under the Supreme Court's supervision, a new chapter has begun.
For too long, we have had a public discourse in which the CBI (technically under the Home Ministry) being described as a "caged parrot" on the one hand, even as it claims to be an autonomous sleuthing body. It is therefore natural that CBI director Alok Verma could take his removal to the Supreme Court and gain public sympathy and opposition support. A Catch-22 situation arises for the Modi government because if you interfere in the CBI, you are proving allegations of a caged parrot and if you don't you are seen doing nothing to fight corruption.
The Central Vigilance Commission is looking into allegations against Alok Verma. Not for nothing, the CVC is described as a postman who forwards corruption complaints. It is officially not an investigating agency and usually works with the CBI as a partner. More important, the government has to approve the CVC taking up any investigation into corruption cases. There are also questions on how senior officials could be appointed to the CBI with CVC clearance in the first place when there were allegations pending against them.
Now, consider the irony of the fact that a government accused of corruption is approving a probe into the affairs of a man who is heading the very agency that gives teeth to the largely toothless CVC!
I can almost hear you say: "Where is the Lok Pal when you need her?"
Though a law was passed in 2013 to set up a Lok Pal, for technical reasons the law that enables the appointment of a constitutional ombudsman to probe allegations of serious corruption has been a non-starter.
In the light of all this, I do believe there is a silver lining when the CBI's state of affairs lands up in the Supreme Court. There is something fundamentally wrong in the system when the CVC is toothless, the Lok Pal is absent, the CBI is a caged parrot in perception or reality and there are widespread allegations of political corruption. The highest court of the land should treat the CBI mess as an opportunity to get a clean-up done. Not just in the current standoff. It should hopefully do something in the long-term interest of fighting corruption and maladministration.
It is not yet clear if the Supreme Court will overstep its brief as far as the current case is concerned, but, given the court's far-reaching pronouncements on issues ranging from privacy to gay rights, one hopes those pleading in the larger public interest will goad it to do something more. I for one would prefer the Supreme Court to have a permanent interest in the functioning of the CBI pending the appointment of a Lok Pal. India's premier investigating agency could do with some judicial muscle.