When cornered, why is it that political formations revert to default settings? More importantly, why do these default settings smack of basic instinct and are driven by primal fear? Centrist or right, the default setting is the same. Under relentless attack, polity has no choice it seems in India but to recoil and conduct itself in a manner unbecoming of a democratically elected political apparatus. Over the last fortnight and in the past too, one has seen innumerable such events and decisions that go against the grain, throwing into stark relief the dysfunctionality of incumbent governments.
When the night of the long knives took place recently with Khan Market (an upscale mart in Lutyens Delhi) policemen rounded up to surround the CBI headquarters down the road in the Lodi Road CGO Complex, all hell broke loose. It appeared unnecessary and extremely ham-handed that when the bloodless coup to remove CBI director Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana took place, the government should resort to such an inane and puerile plan.
Since Verma had been the immediate past Delhi police commissioner, were they afraid that Delhi Police would spring up in his defence and reclaim CB headquarters on his behalf. It was comical, much like Mad Comics Spy vs Spy, very droll, over the top and facetious. Worse still, another police contingent virtually frog marched the interim director M Nageshwar Rao into the building who then decided to seal the 10th and 11th floors of the headquarter. This clumsy and amateurish method would only lead to widespread derision, which it did. You would think that emasculation of institutions was something that was being pursued with demonic zeal.
Soon after this public spectacle, we are now slam bang in the middle of another dogfight between the government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) over infusion of liquidity. Again, one could argue it shows insidious and invidiousness on behalf of a government wanting to show growth in an election year. The government and the political parties are self-obsessed and they have to keep the electorate happy, and when they find that they are being impeded, they resort to different tactics. The pressure on the RBI governor is part of the same process and battles have been fought with great viciousness in the past too between UPA heavy-hitters and governors of their time. In fact, UPA sent its own candidate D Subba Rao (finance secretary) to the Mint Street and the row that ensued was deep seated. Governor Subba Rao resisted both P Chidamabaram and Pranab Mukherjee in different ways, retaining his core independence. As I write this, Delhi’s SPM-laden smog has new rumors swirling in the air that RBI governor Urjit Patel is going to quit because the Mint Street's independence is being impinged upon. There was talk that Patel who has convened a RBI board meeting on November 19 may find himself out in the cold that day. Political compulsions and considerations govern decision making and governments are loathe to being stymied by institutional mechanisms. So, if it is a break down between finance minister Arun Jaitley and Patel, then it is a redux of YV Reddy and P Chidamabaram in the past or Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidamabaram again vs Subba Rao more recently. Does it amount to encroachment on the independence of institutions like CBI and RBI? The answer lies in the grey area between objectivity and subjectivity or the cracks between what constitutes right and wrong. Of course the prism with which you view this problem and which side of the divide you are standing also matters.
For every attempt at destabilising institutions that the BJP is charged with there is a mirror image that can be painted and visualised. Remember that dark day when four Union ministers led by Pranab Mukherjee literally genuflected before Baba Ramdev at the Delhi airport tarmac. As Ramdev descended from his chartered jet from Ujjain in MP, Pranab, Kapil Sibal, Pawan Kumar Bansal and Subodh Kant Sahay tried their level best to dissuade him from going ahead with his protest. To negotiate with a rampant Baba, two ministers –Sibal and Sahay – were sent to Claridges Hotel as the impending threat of satyagraha against corruption took shape in June 2011. Soon after, the same UPA government overwhelmed by all pervading graft charges turned Ramlila Maidan into an arena for this battle, raining canes on the same parade. In between, prime minister Manmohan Singh wrote a letter to Ramdev asking him not to go ahead with the fast, welcoming his suggestions to improve governance by asking for practical and pragmatic solutions. It was the theatre of the absurd. An effete government struck by intellectual bankruptcy was in denial. By February 2013 the relationship had soured to such an extent that Ramdev was busy accusing the UPA government of political vendetta by launching a probe into the functioning of trusts run by him after he started raising his voice against corruption. From one extreme of the vector to the other, mishandling and mismanagement had been turned into an art form as a government at sixes and sevens tried placating a popular yoga guru. But politicians are past masters at defending the indefensible. In popular culture, this was defining moment for it showed a government in great peril, desperate to do anything to save itself from what was clearly a coming tsunami in the shape and form of Narendra Modi.
The amicus curiae appointed by the Supreme Court later found that Chidambaram as home minister ordered the eviction of Ramdev from his massive sit-in protest at Ramlila Maidan. Late at night, as thousands lay sleeping, Delhi Police lashed out with batons to dispel the crowd, and to track down Ramdev. He disappeared, and was found hours later, disguised as a woman, wearing salwar kameez near the railway station. Rajeev Dhawan, who was the amicus curiae (senior lawyer assigned to assist the court), said it was upon Chidambaram’s advice that the police intervened. Similarly, when the protests against the Nirbhaya rape and killing went viral, Delhi Police once again resorted to a brutal assault on students gathered at Vijay Chowk, Rajpath, as they tried to break into Rashtrapati Bhawan. Using water cannons, tear-gas and batons, they trampled upon the rights of students who had risen in support of Nirbhaya. The gang-rape that shook the nation's conscience saw tear-gas and everything else that the might of Delhi Police could throw at the agitators in late December 2012. The sheer brutality of the assault on the students stunned everyone. Though the defiant students did not cave in. All told, “What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” works well as an underlying credo with the political class in this country, after all both sides are equally culpable and even guilty of high handedness when trapped in a cul de sac.
At that precise moment, it looks bizarre and dreadful, but when you hark back to the past, you are served with a smorgasbord of similar indignities heaped by a different dispensation – making one believe that irrespective of one's political assignation, the demands of realpolitik are crucial. It could be interest rates or liquidity or use of forex reserves where the government clashes with the central bank to get it to fix what it reckons is broke. They cannot be on the same page all the time for the monetarist in the RBI takes a different view from the North Block, which wants a softer regime for growth and consumption. The Congress when returned to power in 2009 with 206 MPs also pressed another default button – one that transported it back to their Socialist moorings. Over the 10 years they took many retrograde and regressive steps to decelerate the growth impetus. The BJP too has resorted to appropriation of individuals and vile revision of history and historical figures, but to blame them alone makes no sense. The paradox is the political class – it remains delusional and when faced with elections always manages to look at the polar end of the script. Blame them all. For very literally, when you set something as a default, you choose which programme opens a file automatically. Neither side is unblemished, idols of the cave.