Like many fellow Indians, I spent much of the last evening riveted to the small screen as the drama of P. Chidambaram’s arrest by the CBI unfolded. Indeed, as his son Karti lamented, “The drama and spectacle being enacted by the agencies is to simply sensationalise and satisfy the voyeuristic pleasure of some.” It would be hard to deny the considerable voyeuristic pleasure, if not compelling attraction, of the dramatic proceedings, broadcast live on the telly.
As we know, ‘PC,’ as P. Chidambaram is popularly known, had disappeared for the last 27 hours, giving the enforcement agencies a harrowing time and keeping the media and interested onlookers on tenterhooks. When he did surface, PC did so at the AICC headquarters, at a hastily convened press conference. Of course, as it turned out, it was no press conference. PC read out a prepared statement and brooked no questions after he finished. He was flanked by the two legal luminaries-cum-leaders of the Congress party, Kapil Sibal on his left and Abhishek Manu Singhvi on his right.
PC, however, looked perfectly relaxed; his unctuous countenance barely bore a crease. Sang froid under stress? His statement was not only well-crafted, but the model of persuasion, moderation, and legal acumen. The former home minister and finance minister of India stated that he was not absconding from the law, but seeking its protection. He claimed to have spent all of the previous night working out his legal defence in consultation with his lawyers.
Moreover, he emphasised that two of the most important and cherished values of the Indian Constitution, as enshrined in Article 21, were life and liberty. He boldly stated that he preferred the latter to the former, in a manner almost reminiscent of Patrick Henry’s famous statement in 1775, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’.
Soon after, PC got into a car and departed for an unknown destination. The reporters tailing him were full of speculations. Would he, once again, give the authorities the slip? No, no such thing happened. PC was seen entering the premises of his own home, in upmarket Jor Bagh, New Delhi, accompanied by Singhvi and Sibal. All three entered through the front door and disappeared inside the house.
For a good 10-15 minutes his would-be captors, the CBI and ED, were nowhere to be seen. As the gates to his mansion closed, the reporters were agog once again with questions. Would he sneak out from the back door, once again flummoxing the authorities? Of course that would have contradicted his own statement a few minutes earlier in front of national television that he was not a fugitive from justice. Or, moreover, that the charges levelled against him were ‘lies’, the work of ‘pathological liars’.
At long last, the quite flustered CBI officials showed up at his gate. Finding it bolted from inside, several jumped over the boundary wall. With the gate being opened from inside, the posse chasing him rushed in. More reconnoitred the back entrance in the not too clean and soggy service lane. Several excruciatingly long minutes passed with all the media reporters and experts filling up the airwaves with inconsequential chatter. Then close to 10.45 at night, the nation learnt that PC was finally in custody.
The prize catch was now in the net.
As I write this column, the drama over his arrest and interrogation is still unfolding on live TV. PC has just been produced in court. The CBI is asking for a 5-day remand.
Legal experts are opining that this is normal in cases of such gravity. But as we await the outcome of the hearing, it is time to step back and reflect on the happenings of the last 18 hours.
Is Chidambaram’s arrest a turning point in Indian politics? Most certainly, yes. It is not just the optics or sonics, but the deeper ramifications of these events that should concern us. If the whispers in Lutyens’ Delhi were to be believed, PC was ‘untouchable’. Not only had the courts already granted him protection from arrest for some 15 months, but being a part of the ‘deep state’ he was thought to enjoy special legal and judicial immunity.
Years of cultivating key members of the bureaucracy, judiciary, captains of business and industry, besides having access to almost unlimited financial and political clout, PC was the quintessential representative of the Congress culture. He was India’s Mr Teflon to whom no charge or scandal could stick. Even as irrepressible and ferret-like adversary as the determined Subramanian Swamy was unable to bring him to book. Some had boasted that the aforementioned three lawyer-leaders of the Congress could alone bring the Indian judicial system to a standstill – whether it was the Ayodhya or the National Herald cases.
All this has changed overnight, the new normal is nobody is above the law. The determination of the Narendra Modi government to close the dragnet on its political opponents, who are also legal offenders, has been demonstrated as never before, that too on live TV.
Will the Gandhis themselves be the next in the firing line?
Only time will tell if PC is convicted. But, in the ultimate analysis, that matters little.
A loud and clear message has been sent out that the Modi-Shah duo will not only fight to the finish, but go for the jugular. The silver lining for their opponents is that both sides appear to have faith in the Indian legal and judicial system. This the world will certainly watch and appreciate. India, a fully functioning state, is demonstrably capable of upholding the rule of law.
This is bound to increase the trust between the ruled and the rulers.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His views are personal. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe.