The eyes of the devoted plagiarism hunters would light up if they put this week’s National Interest to the test of their forensics. Old readers of this column will also find this heading and strapline familiar, and for good reason, as this is almost precisely what we had used on another Saturday, July 31, 2010. So you could still be charged, if not with being pompous—as in self-referencing—or lazy, or both. It would perhaps have been safer for me to insert just three words, “like the RBI” in the strapline after “institution”. But we don’t usually idiot-proof this column.
The provocation for the original piece six years ago was a line spoken by Justice J S Verma at the release of The Cobra Dancer, the memoir of Election Commission of India’s formidable officer K J Rao, who returned from retirement as an advisor at a salary of ~12,000 a month and gave us our cleanest elections in Bihar, ending the Lalu family rule. Justice Verma, then Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi and I formed the panel discussing the book. I did ask Justice Verma a question: Could just one individual transform an institution? Just one human being in one finite, short tenure?
He said it was difficult, but possible. Just one individual could have the power to transform an institution and elevate it to founding fathers’ expectations if he had two qualifications: He should have no past, and no expectation (greed) for the future. He was himself a personification of the principle he had just put forward: Having transformed two great national institutions, old Supreme Court of India and the one just forming up, the National Human Rights Commission. Three decades earlier, another judge had similarly reassured us citizens that the Supreme Court would not always fail in protecting our rights — Justice H R Khanna during Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial heyday.
We could think of some others too: T N Seshan who changed Election Commission from a paper tiger to a real one so decisively that two decades of political manipulation have failed to wreck it again. Of course, Seshan was helped along by yet another of these resolute individuals to succeed Seshan, J M Lyngdoh.
We deliberated then what if a similar individual had risen in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). Remember, mid-2010 was when the anti-corruption movement was building up, large scams had made people furious and, while activism was welcome overall, some really bad ideas, like a North Korean style Jan Lokpal Bill were floating. What if just one great cop with no past to hide, or greed for the future, or a CVC, would transform these institutions to their real potential. A draconian, spy-on-your-neighbour and build-a-thousand-new-jails anti-corruption law would then not be needed.
The CBI, if anything, has slid backwards under each new director, incapable of rising from its Central Bureau of Intimidation image. As for CVC, I dare you to name just two names to have headed this supposedly all-powerful corruption-fighter. In fact, I bet, most of us can’t even name its current boss, except that we might have heard from the prime minister’s Congress and Aam Aadmi Party critics lately that he is the officer who headed the income tax probe into the contentious Sahara/Birla diaries. We mean no affront to any individual. It is just that most of our institutions have had a similar fate. The most familiar chief justice of India post-Verma, we should note, is Justice R M Lodha, whose fame is owed to the doughty committee he has headed post-retirement, to “reform” the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
Twenty-five years after the economic reform began, however, we have also seen the arrival of new, very powerful and important institutions, mainly in the form of regulators, from telecom to insurance to petroleum and environment. Each one awaits the blessing of that “Power of One” as defined by Justice Verma. Only the Securities and Exchange Board of India, lately, has shown spine under U K Sinha, in calling Sahara to account. Don’t underestimate the courage needed for this. The power of Sahara is evident in how top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and even Congress (Ghulam Nabi Azad) presented themselves at the release of a book written by him in Tihar: Exactly on the day Rahul Gandhi had charged the prime minister with taking “bribes” from Sahara based on diaries recovered in an income tax raid.
The Reserve Bank of India is by far our oldest and vital, with the most valuable reputation, earned over the decades. Run your eye over the wall in the Governor’s ante-room in Mumbai, displaying framed portraits of the past incumbents, and you see India’s economic history in one-snapshot. RBI isn’t designed or legislated to be autonomous as the judiciary and Election Commission, or even, say, CVC or CAG. It is answerable to the finance ministry and through it to Parliament. Yet, successive governments have refrained from messing with it and respect at least a notion of autonomy. It has led to some rough situations, but the politicians have usually fretted, but and backed off.
Also read: The Power Of One
The current incumbent, Urjit Patel, was barely in the job for three months when the institution under his watch took (or was made to take) its most sweeping decision ever.
As to what exact role RBI has played in demonetisation, is a matter of much debate. Depending on whether you hear whispers in the capital’s North Block or Mumbai’s Mint Street, you can hear many different versions of the truth, or fiction. The “fact” on-the-record, however, is that the demonetisation was carried out on the basis of a recommendation by the RBI Board. It was necessary to maintain secrecy as the idea was to ambush the crooks. But now that six weeks have passed since secrecy ended, why should RBI not make the agenda of its crucial board meeting and its minutes public? These are not secret, and can be sought through RTI as well. But why should RBI not display transparency by itself?
Go to the RBI website. Its own, short mission statement begins, “To regulate the issue of Bank notes and the keeping of reserves with a view to securing monetary stability in India…” Currency is its main responsibility. Silence and secrecy post-November 8, and then the awful flip-flops have not enhanced its image. Discontinuing the usual practice of releasing weekly bank deposits data, deletion of a statement from its website on total deposits until December 10 without an explanation, doesn’t do justice to a globally respected institution. Mr Patel is an economist with fine international reputation and enjoys bipartisan respect: He was appointed deputy governor, RBI by the UPA government under Dr Manmohan Singh, in January 2013. He needn’t fight or defy the government, particularly if he is convinced of the need for notebandi. All he needs to say is, RBI is a respected, transparent institution whose actions, backed by data, are open to peer review and debate. And then start releasing relevant data, analysis and projections. RBI isn’t a secret society or a covert, intelligence organisation.
That’s a reasonable expectation. Mr Patel has a chance to be that one individual with no past or greed for the future who could, if not enhance, at least protect the stature of his hallowed institution.