Chidambaram's Arrest: The Hunter Becomes the Hunted

Intoxicated with power, it's easy to forget that the wheel of fortune forever turns and may one day run over you.

When in power, politicians feel immortal. They make laws thinking they will rule forever. The laws that they make, the police state that they create – beholden to them while they hold the reins – come back to bite them when out of power.

Intoxicated with power, it’s easy to forget that the wheel of fortune forever turns and may one day run over you. It is a poignant irony that the ED, CBI and all the dreaded agencies which reported to P. Chidambaram – at one time or another – are now hounding him, trying to lock him up. The hunter is now the hunted.

A wistful thought may not have escaped Chidambaram and the Congress: “If only the Congress when in power for all those years, had made these various institutions independent of the ruling party, completely autonomous and yet accountable to a larger oversight committee, the situation may have been different.” It will haunt them for a long time.

A television anchor asked a BJP spokesperson, “Won’t people say it’s too glaring and obvious that this is vendetta politics? Chidambaram, as home minister, was instrumental in getting Amit Shah arrested and sending him to jail. Now Amit Shah is paying him back with the same coin.”

The spokesperson, grinning like a Cheshire cat, answered smugly on expected lines: “Amit Shah or the government has nothing to do with it. The CBI is independent. The law has to take its course. Nobody is above the law.”

Congress leaders, equally glib, were at pains to convince everyone that “this was an attempt to silence the opposition, an assault on democracy. Amit Shah was using CBI as his private detective agency and the agencies were riding roughshod on the fundamental rights of individuals.”

Home minister Amit Shah. Image: PTI/Files

The CBI’s autonomy

Can anyone overlook that the ‘caged parrot’ epithet that was earned by the CBI during the Congress’s rule? The agencies were at the beck and call of the ruling parties, ready do their bidding and rein in opposition leaders who were politically inconvenient to the ruling dispensation. The Damocles Sword of the CBI was always kept hanging over their heads, to be used at will, perennially keeping corruption and criminal cases on opposition leaders hanging, which were deliberately never closed for decades. The Congress never had any qualms in unleashing an investigating agency to secure political support from opposition leaders at critical junctures.

There may be consternation, despair and even wringing of hands in the Congress camp for not doing what they should have and could have easily done when Anna Hazare laid siege to Delhi. He demanded that the UPA II government under Manmohan Singh appoint a Lokpal and bringing the CBI under its purview to make it autonomous.

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On the other side of the divide, there may be sadistic glee and justification among the BJP’s followers that Chidambaram needs no empathy.

The issue is not Shah or Chidambaram, but that of misuse of executive power. It’s about the autonomy and sanctity of various institutions, not just the CBI or ED, but others such as the law department and the offices of the attorney and solicitor generals. Under duress, their allegiance has not always been to justice and rule of law. It cannot be to any particular party or an individual who exercises power – ministers, bureaucrats – but to an overarching fidelity to the Constitution. There can be no two opinions on that.

Demands made by Anna Hazare

There is also the urgent need for autonomy of similar key institutions, even at the state level. This was another of Anna Hazare’s demands. Though he seemed naive and rustic, he was very shrewd and perceptive. He repeatedly emphasised he was not demanding Manmohan Singh’s resignation or the downfall of the UPA. He wanted systemic changes. Without that, a change of government would be a meaningless exercise. His experience had taught him over the years that successive governments were only more corrupt and more autocratic. Political parties had only one aim – to concentrate power around themselves, placing them beyond the pale of law.

File photo of Anna Hazare. Credit: PTI

Indeed, in the present case, there are definite and troubling questions about the legal niceties, and as some would say, the crude handling of the arrest. As a former CBI director told a TV channel, “The agency could have shown more sensitivity and finesse.” They need not have gone about this circus of scaling walls and jumping fences, under the public glare of television cameras as though they were apprehending an armed terrorist.

That overzealous show of bravado – where no enemy fire or danger lurked – was comic and reminded one of Tom Sawyer’s adventures. This tamasha of sorts was voyeuristic entertainment during the evening staple of television news. It was an adrenalin bursting release for television anchors. Humiliation for a former home minister, his family and friends and of the Grand Old Party. But for many in the saffron party and its sympathisers, it may have been a primaeval urge, gladiatorial bloodletting to avenge a past.

Reshaping institutions

If all these tumultuous events and the nature of these events can serve any public good, it is that the focus must shift to the necessity of reforms to bring autonomy and credibility to many of our institutions.

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Even if the CBI and ED had acted independently and justly in Chidambaram’s case, their actions are always suspect. These institutions are organisationally structured to be controlled by the party in power. If their autonomy is not ensured by statute – with adequate checks and balance – and if they are not seen to be outside the clutches of the ruling parties, their credibly will always be under a cloud, their motives always questioned. This will affect the morale and efficiency of the agencies. No one can be expected to discharge their duties to their full potential if they are not held in high esteem. There cannot be any trust deficit between the general public and the institutions.

There may be a moral to the story in all this. As someone said, “Politicians who make laws, must now and then live under those laws.” It will chasten them and will also be good for society.

Captain G.R. Gopinath is an author, politician and entrepreneur who founded Air Deccan.