By Barkha Dutt
It’s the Indian version of President Trump’s sacking of his FBI chief. But this time, India’s episode has exposed the first signs of panic and overreach in Narendra Modi’s government. For a prime minister whose absolutist control over the bureaucracy and cabinet used to be the stuff of folklore, an open revolt by the head of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) signals an unexpected volatility in the fortunes of a strongman-led regime.
It began with a very public spat within the country’s top investigative agency between its chief (Alok Verma) and his deputy (Rakesh Asthana) over grave allegations of corruption. The government failed to intervene when the dispute was still simmering; when it boiled over, and it was already too late, the government sent both officials on enforced leave.
Claims of this being a considered and neutral decision to clean up the CBI have been belied by several facts. First, the government order came in the middle of the night, betraying a distinct and mysterious anxiety. Second, claims of equidistance were demolished by the fact that Asthana, the No. 2 who has been close to the ruling BJP party’s president, as well as to Modi since his years as Gujarat chief minister, appeared to get the better end of the deal. The entire team set up by his boss to investigate the charge of bribery against him was transferred out. And finally, the interim director appointed by the government has been dogged by a spate of his own corruption controversies.
As the agency literally imploded, the exiled CBI director petitioned the Supreme Court, which has now taken over the probe.
Six months before India votes to elect a new government, this public spectacle signals Modi’s loosening grip over both institutions and political messaging. Modi has been masterful at communication; it’s a key reason for his electoral domination. Yet he has been curiously silent. This is the second public relations disaster within a few weeks for his government caused at least partially by a lack of action. The first was the inexplicable delay in getting rid of its junior foreign affairs minister, accused by 20 women of sexual harassment and abuse.
For a prime minister who won in 2014 with more seats than any other leader in 30 years, this absence of control was once unimaginable. When Modi first took charge, rumors abounded of how his inner circle kept a hawk’s eye on everyone. Bureaucrats who used to slip off for a round of golf on a balmy summer afternoon were now studiously chained to their desks. Stories swirled about how ministers were reprimanded for being too friendly with influential businessmen or taking too much time off from work. In an administration that had centralized power, every institution was subject to Modi’s commanding authority. This included institutions that were meant to be somewhat antithetical to the establishment — like the news media. In the age of Modi, media houses — in particular television — are virtual supplicants that have rarely questioned the populist or dominant, sometimes majoritarian, discourse.
This was in direct contrast to the previous Congress government. By the end of his second term, former prime minister Manmohan Singh was pilloried for his silences in moments of crisis, besieged by allegations of corruption against his cabinet colleagues and gripped by leadership paralysis.
But today there might be an ironic reversal of roles unfolding. The Modi government is beginning to show shades of decay and hubris reminiscent of the Congress regime, while Rahul Gandhi is borrowing from Modi’s playbook and getting much better at grabbing the news headlines and the dramatic photo ops.
The Gandhi-led opposition has successfully linked the ouster of the CBI director with what it calls the “Rafale Scam.” The Modi government’s decision to purchase 36 fighter jets from French manufacturer Dassault, and subsequently partner with industrialist Anil Ambani instead of the country’s public defense, has been presented by his detractors as an example of cronyism. Verma has not contradicted the growing perception that the Rafale files were on his desk or the reports that this could have been one reason for the government crackdown.
The tawdry CBI war, and its spillover onto other wings of the administration, is triggering a sense of deja vu among many Indians. This is not the first time the investigative agency has been mired in politics. In the Congress years, an angry judiciary had called it the “caged parrot” because of persistent political manipulation. But as an outsider to the national capital, Modi had sneered at the nexus between vested interests in the city’s political elite and promised a radically different kind of governance.
The CBI is not the only organization that the government has been feuding with. A public feud with the outspoken former governor of India’s central bank, Raghuram Rajan, led to him being denied a second term.
Since then, relations between the Modi regime and the Reserve Bank of India have not gotten any better. This week, the bank’s deputy governor warned that attempts to undermine its independence could be potentially catastrophic. Earlier this year, four judges of the Supreme Court had an unprecedented press conference to announce that democracy in India was under threat because of how courts were being run. The government has also picked hostile quarrels with international nonprofit groups like Greenpeace and Amnesty, with officials even raiding the human rights group and freezing its accounts.
The BJP dismisses these controversies as preoccupations of the urban elite and believes this will have no impact on the popularity of the prime minister. They may well be right. In that case, it is even tougher to understand how and why Modi has let the narrative slip from his grip.