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Crumbling empire

By Kumar Ketkar

The Supreme Court was rather kind and sympathetic to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) when, in 2013, it described the agency as a “caged parrot”.

 

Parrots are relatively harmless and talk as trained. The correct description would have been “caged hounds”, or even “caged hyenas”. Now, those hounds and hyenas seem to have come out of the cage and gone berserk.

These frightening species attack their prey viciously. It is not easy to cage them either. But they have their role in the jungle, particularly in those inhabited by many other wild animals.

The hounds and hyenas are so ferocious and violent that even tigers are afraid of them. They move around in gangs, which makes them much more sinister.
However, let’s leave that analogy aside for a moment.

In his campaign for the Prime Minister’s chair, Narendra Modi had espoused the cause of good, firm and decisive governance, describing Dr Manmohan Singh’s government as paralysed.

In his umpteen speeches, Modi talked of removing the “corrupt, inefficient, paralysed government”. His most eloquent came on 15 August 2013, alongside the then PM Manmohan Singh’s from the Red Fort.

TV news channels showed both speeches in split screen, virtually anointing Modi the “PM-Elect”. The debates that followed the two speeches almost uniformly welcomed the leadership qualities of Modi.

He had projected himself as an “iron man” in the tradition of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, whose statue (tallest in the world) will be dedicated to the nation on his birth anniversary on 31 October (Wednesday).

It is also the day former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, described by some as “iron lady”, was assassinated 34 years ago.

It has been clear since his campaign days that Modi wants to be known as today’s “iron-fisted man”, his self-image taller than the 182-metre Sardar Patel statue. His language would generate awe and fear. His followers were impressed (strangely, they remain impressed even now).

He would not tolerate any corruption, nepotism and administrative lapses, he said, his campaign pivoted on the tag line “na khaoonga, na khane doinga”). The anti-corruption movement under Anna Hazare had created an environment where this tag line immediately caught on.

Modi came on the stage as a man who would transform India into a clean, disciplined, moral and political superpower.

He wanted to “make India great again” by erasing the previous 70 years and purging the legacy of the Congress.

Immediately after being sworn in as Prime Minister, he began to display the promised iron fist, and the bureaucrats in South and North Block were “disciplined”.
Modi would personally call even senior ministers or bureaucrats at 7 in the morning or midnight to give instructions or know something. All the ministers had to observe the disciplinary code.

He knew or wanted to know who they met, what they talked about, how they dressed, and so on. Within the first six months of his tenure, a sort of fear, even terror, was established. Ministers and bureaucrats began to avoid meeting media-persons, or even attending social gatherings or parties.

This supposedly impregnable wall of governance has cracked now. The implosion in the CBI as well as the full-scale conflict at play, including defiance of orders, going to press out of turn, leaking of anti-government stories to the press and the opposition, and encouragement of dissent within the BJP and NDA, are reminiscent of the Byzantine era or, more recently, the last days of Richard Nixon’s tenure as US President.

The entire Watergate scandal would not have exploded if the system had not begun to crack. The then American media showed the spine, strength and commitment to freedom, without which the systemic cleansing would not have been possible.

Indeed, if the Indian media were more alert, more inquisitive and non-embedded, the cracks could have been exposed much earlier. But most of the Indian media, particularly the TV and orchestrated social media, helped sustain the image of Modi as a no-nonsense, decisive Prime Minister.

This facade of “decisiveness” and Modi having an “iron grip over the administration” fooled even the veterans of the bureaucracy and the media. Therefore, sceptics were often asked, as they are even now: “But where is the alternative? If not Modi, who will lead the country?”

That stonewall of the edifice of governance is breaking up now. The brutal and vengeful war between the CBI and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has exposed the collapse of governmental authority.

Home minister Rajnath Singh, as well as his highly visible and vocal junior Kiren Rijiju, have either lost their speech or their tongues are tied. They cannot take refuge in the technicality that the Department of Personnel and Training is the final authority and not the home ministry.

What’s even more interesting is that while the home minister is quiet, the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, is issuing statements on l’affaire CBI. The Prime Minister is, as usual, eloquently silent.

But, in quality, this silence is different from his silence on the issue of lynching or cow vigilantism.

The current silence is primarily because the so-called iron grip has weakened as the iron itself has rusted. It is also because even the media sycophants find themselves unable to defend the illusion of governance.

The cracks in the system began to emerge when four judges of the Supreme Court invited the press, in an unprecedented initiative, to alert the people that democracy was in danger.

The bricks of the systemic wall crumbled further when the Reserve Bank of India confessed that demonetisation was a huge failure.

The crisis was also loud and clear when the economy began to show dangerous trends — massive non-performing assets (NPAs) bringing banks on the verge of collapse, Nirav Modi-type scams, the fast and steep fall in the value of rupee, the unprecedented rise in petrol and diesel prices, rising trade deficit, withdrawal of investments by the FIIs, and so on.

The emperor was seen wearing no clothes. But nobody wanted to say it out loud. The emperor knows he never had any clothes on. But he was happy that most media showed him wearing beautiful dresses. The dirty tricks of the CBI and the IB have boomeranged now, and the intelligence agencies have ripped apart that illusory robe now.

The hounds and hyenas don’t care for the designer dresses, nor for any emperor.