This has possibly been the most embarrassing week for Narendra Modi since he became Prime Minister. Not just because the highest intelligence officials in India were involved in a private dogfight that got them both ‘sent on leave’. Not because the dogfight ended up in the Supreme Court with the judiciary charged yet again with handling something that should have remained in the purview of the Executive. But, because of the contemptibly clumsy manner in which the Prime Minister handled the crisis in the Central Bureau of Intelligence.
What was he thinking when he ordered that weird midnight manoeuvre to oust the head of the CBI? Was he thinking at all? And, if it was not him responsible for the flat-footed, dumb police work, then who was? He should be named and sacked. Can you imagine the gloating that must have gone on at the highest levels of government in our enemy countries as they watched the absurd melodrama of the midnight raid, and the snooping on the CBI director that followed his enforced leave of absence?
If the Prime Minister believes that by remaining silent and letting sundry ministers speak on his behalf he remains untouched by the dirt and ruthless grind of politics, he is wrong. It was his ability to communicate leadership that won him a full majority in 2014, and it could be his failure to lead when leadership is needed that could harm him more than anything that Rahul Gandhi can do. The truth, as I have discovered on recent travels in the wilds of rural India, is that the Congress president’s unfailing ability to convey the opposite of gravitas has made him seen by too many Indians as an incoherent clown.
Every time he calls a press conference to declare yet again that ‘desh ka chowkidar chor hai’ he confirms that he is more schoolboy than national leader. Modi is lucky that the media has succeeded in projecting him as his main opponent. Had there been a more serious candidate in this role, Modi could be in deep trouble even with those who continue to believe that he is the only real leader India has. But, a few more midnight raids on government offices and the Rahul advantage could begin to wither.
The CBI has always been used politically by prime ministers. It is a sad admission but true. It has been used against political opponents. It has been used to suppress investigations when they became inconvenient to those in power. It has been used to benefit rich men who can pay for investigations against them to be slowed down. And, so obvious have these things been that it was famously called ‘a caged parrot’. Former directors of this most powerful intelligence agency have been outed by their own visitors’ books as pliant tools of the corrupt and powerful men whom they were supposed to be investigating. It is true that an open civil war between two of its highest officials has never been allowed to become so public before. But, why was the Prime Minister’s Office unable to ensure that it did not become as public as it became?
Failure to do this is the main reason why Opposition leaders have been able to openly fling charges of favouritism and partiality against the Prime Minister personally. And, by the way if it is true that his ‘blue-eyed boy’ had corruption charges recorded on his CV, how did he manage to get where he did? This leads to the next charge that is now made often against the Prime Minister, and this is that he only trusts officials who speak Gujarati. Every prime minister is entitled to surround himself with confidants from his home state, but no prime minister should position these confidants in offices where competence is more important than loyalty.
Now that we know what a lair of vice and venom the CBI was, it provides the Prime Minister with a great opportunity to do some serious Diwali cleaning. But, whatever is done must be done with enough transparency and decorum for the process not to become yet another political football. This transparency can only come when the Prime Minister recognises the need to speak on issues of national importance. It is his silence on the Rafale deal that has allowed the Congress president to charge him with personal corruption.
Luckily for Modi, he does this with such childish glee that he ends up looking like someone who just won a schoolyard fight. But, there are leaders and spokesmen in the Congress party who have the gravitas that their president lacks, and last week when they were pitted against Modi’s ministers, there is no question that they made a remarkably convincing case of constitutional impropriety. It is hard to think of a more mortifying moment in Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister.