24 Dec The issue today is whether a dishonest system can be managed honestly
Allegations of interference in major institutions have been the big news of late. The ongoing fracas in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has got out of hand, with the two top officials in the chain of command accusing each other of corruption. The recent pronouncements in the Supreme Court do not promise an early resolution.
The fight against widespread graft in the country has been set back. The Deputy Governor of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has highlighted the serious consequences if there is an erosion of its autonomy. The intervention by the Supreme Court in the CBI issue places a question mark on the independence of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the functioning of the government as a whole in making key appointments in the CBI. The CBI controversy has also left an imprint on the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing.
The list of institutions in decline is long. The ongoing #MeToo movement has exposed the sordid goings-on in large swathes of the media and the entertainment industry. Earlier too, the Election Commission was under a cloud over the announcement of election dates, action taken against some Delhi legislators and the functioning of electronic voting machines. The functioning of the judiciary itself has been a cause for concern. Then there is the attempt to introduce Civil Service Rules in Central universities, an attempt to erode the autonomy of academics. The crisis in the banking system and the huge non-performing assets that overrun their balance sheets impact the viability of the financial system.
The present and past
The storm is gathering pace. The decline of institutions in India is not recent. In 2016, demonetisation brought out the centralisation of power and a lack of consultation with important sections of the government. The chaos prevailed for months and about 99% of the money came back into the system, thus defeating the very purpose of carrying out this draconian measure. Those with black money escaped and those who had never seen black money were put to great hardship. The RBI and the banks were marginalised.
The CBI imbroglio is no surprise. Political interference in the agency and corruption among its ranks have been talked about but are hard to prove. The Supreme Court, in 2013, even called the agency a ‘caged parrot’ but this was not concrete enough. The political Opposition when feeling the heat of various investigations has always accused the agency of being its ‘master’s voice’. Now that the spat within has come out in the open, with a spate of accusations, these fears have become all the more credible.
A deep rot
The rot has set in deep, with charges of government manipulation in crucial cases. With the Vineet Narain case, in the 1990s, the Supreme Court tried to insulate the CBI from political manipulation by placing it under the supervision of the CVC. But that has not worked since the independence of the CVC itself has been suspect.
Why is the autonomous functioning of the CBI and CVC such an irresolvable issue?
The CBI is an investigative agency largely manned/controlled by personnel drawn from the police force. And this is a force used to doing the bidding of the ruling dispensation. The rulers themselves commit irregularities in the routine and depend on the police to cooperate with them. The rulers cannot pull them up in their own self-interest.
In the police, there are ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ duties where money can be made in the first but not in the second. Being on the right side of the political masters is lucrative. While earlier there may have been few such officers doing political bidding, now it seems they dominate.
It is akin to having a ‘committed bureaucracy’, an idea floated during the Emergency. The issue is: Committed to whom? To the national interest or to the rulers?
The rule of law is being subverted and illegality being committed on a large scale. Growth of the black economy is a measure of illegality. It has gone up from 4-5% of GDP in 1955-56 to the present level of 62%. It has become ‘systematic and systemic’ and eroded institutional functioning all across the board. This has damaged institutions.
Institutions provide the framework for individuals and systems to function. Their breakdown leads to a breakdown of societal functioning — democracy is weakened, the sense of justice is eroded and the Opposition is sought to be suppressed. The tainted not only survive but also get promoted and damage institutions.
If institutions are strong, they are respected and it becomes difficult to manipulate them. It enables the honest to survive. In strong institutions, individual corruption is an aberration but when they weaken, it becomes generalised. It leads to individualisation, illegality becomes acceptable and the collective interest suffers. Even an ‘honest’ Prime Minister tolerated dishonesty under him. The dilemma is, can a dishonest system be managed honestly?
Arun Kumar is Malcolm Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, and the author of ‘Understanding Black Economy and Black Money: An Enquiry into Causes, Consequences and Remedies’