By Manik Sharma Jan. 11, 2019
It is a strange and disturbing thought that the very institutions founded to implement and sustain democracy, have recently had to struggle with undemocratic values. The sacking of Alok Verma a day after his reinstatement is further proof that the country’s institutions are risking losing their autonomy and integrity - in some cases, irreparably.
George Orwell writes in the ageless novel 1984, “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” Nothing could better define for us the year that has just gone by. A year that for the country’s institutions, was more about the tussles within rather than the work they accomplished.
It is a strange and disturbing thought that the very institutions founded to implement and sustain democracy, have had to struggle with undemocratic values in recent times. The tectonic friction in government institutions is an example of how the ruling party has left no place where its interfering finger hasn’t been dipped. The previous year will probably go down in history as the time several institutions lost their autonomy and integrity – in some cases, irreparably.
It started in January last year, when four of the senior-most Supreme Court judges were forced to voice their dissent in public at the way the Judiciary was losing its ethical backbone. It was an unprecedented event, especially from a pillar of Indian democracy as autonomous as the judiciary. That people as armed and influential as the ones that run the highest court of the land, couldn’t think any better than to go public about the pressures they had for long felt says something about the way power has come to be bartered and bargained in the country. Yet, it was distressing to witness a revered institution – one that most Indians trust more than the government itself – suddenly become the sight of an embarrassing drama.
The Capital was the scene of more than one such drama – there are the on-off theatrics with the government that runs Delhi. The BJP isn’t new to proxy wars. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal has throughout the tenure of his office either quarrelled with the governor, departments under the Home Ministry or bureaucratic appointees of the Modi regime.
The biggest shocker after the Supreme Court fiasco came last October, when CBI Special Director Rakesh Asthana, appointed by PM Modi was arrested on charges of corruption by none other than his superior in the agency, Alok Verma. It gave us the standout absurd headlines this year, like “CBI raids CBI”. This tussle reached its climax today, when a PM-led panel ousted Verma, just two days after the Supreme Court had reinstated him as the CBI chief. It’s a clear sign of strained rapport between CBI’s top two, and an irretrievable dip in the institution’s dignity on the national stage.
Not too long after the CBI fiasco began, last December, the embattled RBI governor Urjit Patel resigned as the BJP’s attempts to puncture RBI’s autonomy, perhaps became too hot to handle. But these are the ones that caught our attention because there was at least a hand raised, or a foot withdrawn from the edge of the room that one must have had to compromise morality to enter. Let us not forget those who paid the price for having spoken up.
Various sections of the national and local media, for example, have willingly toe-d the government line, having either succumbed to pressures or decided to gain from them. If collusion did not work, the government in 2018 resorted to censorship. A report in November found the I&B ministry as the “most active censoring agency” in the country. Not to mention how it wants to censor content on social media and streaming websites.
Throughout 2018, there were instances where institutional duress manifested variably. Be it in the altering stances that the Election Commission held about electoral bonds or the way the armed forces found itself at the centre of the Rafale scam, the manner in which a yet-to-be-formed university (JIO institute) was ludicrously declared “eminent” or attempts to amend the RTI act. There has been more intrusion than there should have reasonable construction.
These, though, were at the centre alone. Away from sight, behind the front pages, in the many states that the BJP governs, attempts have been made at shaking not just the trees, but entire forests. From trying to change course syllabi in Rajasthan’s school textbooks to pardoning criminals in Uttar Pradesh, constitutional integrity has been shred like cheese for the purpose of gain.
Not only is the roof leaking, it has been made sure that the pillars suffer the cracks of discontent as well. And nothing can be worse for the country’s balance. “CBI raids the CBI” is not a joke, it is a historic fissure.
Therefore, this squishing of the country’s democratic flesh must not be enjoyed for the comic redness it appears in. It should be considered an indicator of just about how far the ground may have shifted; just how deep, these institutions may have been dented, and with it, the idea, that we continue to live in a democracy. If a few bricks have fallen out, there must be pressure on this structure, an indefensible strain on the inside that we might be too late to feel the pain from and do something about it.