Ever since the Manmohan Singh
government became embroiled in scams, it has been mainly the
Supreme Court that has pushed for accountability.
In doing so, it has taken recourse to a new technique for
ascertaining the truth - that of virtually appropriating to itself
the task of inquiry by directing the official agencies, either the
police or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), to conduct
the probes under the judiciary's aegis.
It has been an eminently successful method. In Gujarat, for
instance, the Special Investigating Teams (SIT) set up to inquire
into the Narendra Modi government's role during and after the 2002
riots have performed reasonably well.
The main feature of these probes is that the governments, whether
in the states or at the centre, have no role to play. Now, for the
first time, this dividing line has been breached. And, the suspect
is none other than the country's law minister, Ashwani Kumar.
Besides, his alleged vetting of the CBI's report relates to the
coalgate scandal in which the prime minister's name has been
mentioned because he was once the coal minister. The suspicion,
therefore, is that he was trying to protect Manmohan Singh,
perhaps on his own.
The Supreme Court's outrage is understandable - it has described
the act of overseeing of the report as an "erosion" of trust by
the CBI - because the intervention by the minister, bureaucrats of
the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and law officers like the
attorney general has negated the very purpose of the
court-monitored investigation, which is to ensure its credibility
by keeping the government at arm's length.
It is as if Gujarat's tainted minister, Amit Shah, has checked the
SIT's report on the fake encounter cases with which he is
It is obvious that from now on, the scene will become murkier as
the Supreme Court tries to "liberate" the CBI from official
control, as it has vowed to do. First, more skeletons will tumble
out of the cabinet as the court examines the CBI's affidavits on
who saw the report, what changes were made, were there any
deletions or additions, etc.
Secondly, as a result of these revelations, the government will
continue to be on the back foot with the opposition and the media
relentlessly harassing it. Its prospects, therefore, of
approaching the next round of elections in Madhya Pradesh,
Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi with any degree of confidence is
However, there may still be a silver lining to this gloomy
scenario for the general public. Irrespective of how disheartening
the current spell of "judicial activism" is for the government -
and, indeed, for the entire political class, for no party wants an
independent CBI - the democratic system itself is likely to
For a start, the CBI's functional autonomy may be finally assured
and, along with it, a revival of the move to implement the Supreme
Court's 2006 order on police reforms, to which the state
governments have so far turned a deaf ear. As a former CBI
director, R.K. Raghavan, said after the latest incident, no law
minister will want to oversee the CBI's reports even for
"grammatical errors", as has been suggested in the present case.
The reason for Ashwani Kumar's enthusiasm is obvious. The Indian
politicians have been so accustomed to using the police and
official agencies - the enforcement directorate, the income-tax
authorities, et al - for partisan purposes that Ashwani Kumar
apparently thought nothing of checking what the CBI had found on
the coal scam. Nor did the CBI director, Ranjit Sinha, find
anything wrong with his inquisitiveness. As Sinha has confessed,
his organisation is a wing of the government and that he had shown
the report to a minister and not an outsider.
However, there are factors other than the subservience of
officials and the political propensity to misuse supposedly
autonomous institutions which are at work here. It is the decline
in the moral calibre of individuals involved in governance.
Arguably, in an earlier age, neither would a minister have
blatantly interfered in the preparation of a report on the
government's controversial role nor would an official have meekly
responded to the summons to carry the files meant for the
judiciary to a minister. It is also self-evident that the scams
themselves - on the Commonwealth Games, the 2G spectrum and coal
block allocations - are an indication of falling standards.
The country must be thankful that the judiciary at the highest
levels - though not always lower down - remains free of taint and
dedicated to the cause of ensuring honesty in public life. It is
frightening to think what might have happened otherwise.
With a government mired in allegations of sleaze, and an
opposition seeing the disruption of parliament as the only way to
keep itself in the public eye, the task of cleansing the system
has fallen on the judiciary, with the "fourth estate", the media,
ensuring that none of the political shenanigans remains hidden.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be
reached at email@example.com