It started long before Narendra Modi took office.
To untangle the sordid controversy over the removal, restitution and re-removal of Alok Verma as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director, it is useful to look at the affair from the perspective of ‘dharma’.
Now the word ‘dharma’ is derived from the root ‘dhr’, which means ‘to hold together, to preserve, maintain or keep’. Dharma, therefore, is a set of norms, rules, behaviours, thoughts and actions that keep something together. It is contextual, depending on what the ‘something’ is.
Of course, the word ‘dharma’ is also used to refer to righteousness, duty, morality, law and religious denomination. But at the heart of it, dharma is still about holding things together: from day-to-day interpersonal affairs, to human relationships to political institutions. It follows that ‘adharma’— that is non-dharma or anti-dharma — would cause things to break up or collapse. The CBI controversy is an example.
Indeed, it is impossible to diagnose the steady collapse of governance and public administration in India without reference to ‘dharma’. The simple question is: Are the individuals concerned acting in ways that hold the institution together? Are they acting in ways that preserve the trust that people have placed in them? Are they acting in ways that the social contract between the government and the governed is maintained?
The answer is a clear “no”. The facts related to his sacking and thereafter are well known, so I won’t repeat them here.
But let’s assume Mr Verma is corrupt as has been alleged. Unless his corrupt behaviour started at the fag end of his career, those who appointed him were either incompetent (they didn’t perform adequate checks), complicit (they appointed him because they knew he was a bad egg) or indifferent (they didn’t care).
Failing to ensure that an upright person is the head of the body charged with punishing the non-upright is ‘adharma’. If, on the other hand, Mr Verma is not guilty of the charges, then removing him without cause is also ‘adharma’.
Yes, the ‘adharma’ at the CBI started long before Narendra Modi took office. But the CBI as an institution is broken today. It is hard to see how any of its prosecutions can be seen as anything but politically-motivated operations to fix those on the wrong side of power.
You may score partisan debating points by saying that the caged parrot lacked credibility even before 2014, but in doing so you are merely accepting that it’s okay to allow ruling parties to use state power to fix opponents. Remember, though, that the shoe can be on the other foot.
After the CBI moved against him in a mining case a few days ago, SP leader Akhilesh Yadav warned that “the BJP should remember that the culture it is leaving behind, it may have to face it in the future”.
It would be as ‘adharmic’ and as wrong for a future government to use the CBI to persecute its opponents as it is for the current one.
One popular belief is that we can ensure a public institution behaves properly by putting another one on top of it. When the CBI was found to be inadequate for combating corruption, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) was given powers over it.
When that didn’t work too well, a supreme Lokpal came to be seen as the solution. We nurse hopes that while the CBI chief can be deemed corrupt and the CVC controversial, the Lokpal will somehow be a paragon of integrity.
In recent months, the Supreme Court directed a retired judge to supervise the CVC’s investigation of a CBI chief accused by his subordinate; this (judge’s) report was ignored by another Supreme Court judge, who went with the Prime Minister’s view that the CBI chief was guilty. Would things have been better had there been a Supreme Court-appointed observer in a Lokpal, who would submit another report that might or might not be read by the CVC, the Appointment Committee of the Cabinet and the Supreme Court?
Obviously not. Too many supervisors, too much complexity. The head explodes.
In fact, the solution is simple. And it is ‘dharma’: the simple idea that everyone should perform their assigned roles and functions. That means being unafraid of political pressure, being unmoved by gratification, unconcerned with which way the electoral winds are blowing.
So, the solution is profoundly difficult. But we have no choice.
We are not a Semitic civilisation. We are a secular republic. Therefore, to call the Constitution a holy book is doubly wrong. Moreover, it is possible to worship a book while violating the essence of what’s written in it.
We are a ‘dharmic’ civilisation, held together by norms, codes and actions. You can call me naive. You can call me an idealist. But the only way to restore confidence in the institutions of the Indian republic is when we both act and expect people to act in accordance with their ‘dharma’.
We should see the Constitution as laying out our ‘dharma’, not as a holy book. And the process of practising and upholding dharma must start from the top. Tad tad evataro janah. The rest will follow.
Otherwise, things will continue to fall apart.
The author is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.