The CBI trouble may be hogging the headlines but it is not the most important issue facing the country, nor does it pose a challenge to the govt.
The comforting simple majority that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won under the Narendra Modi baton in the 2014 Lok Sabha election had given rise to justified euphoria in Year 1 and Year 2 and to smugness in Years 3 and 4. But luck runs its course. So, it is hardly surprising that Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces troubles and irritants in Year 5. The minuscule civil war unleashed inside the mini-universe of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is more humiliating for the Modi government than the charges of the CBI being a “caged parrot” under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It showed that the government under the Congress-led UPA was controlling the CBI and misusing it.
In the present case of the eruption of trouble in the premier investigating agency, it showed that the government chose the wrong set of officers to run it. Instead of pursuing high-profile corruption cases, the CBI turned the dagger on itself, as it were. The intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and national security adviser Ajit Doval, and the midnight drama of CBI additional director M. Nageswara Rao taking over as interim director, and director Alok Verma and special director Rakesh Asthana sent on forced leave revealed that the government was not in control of the situation, and its crisis management cannot be interpreted as a success story as the crisis was gratuitous. Mr Verma and Mr Asthana going to the Supreme Court challenging the government’s decision calls for negative marking. The argument put forward by the government’s chief defence lawyer, finance minister Arun Jaitley, that the CBI officers should be above suspicion like Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, is a lame argument. The government should not have chosen officers to lead the CBI, who were, in the first place, carrying the baggage of corruption charges.
The main Opposition party, the Congress, and its impetuous president Rahul Gandhi literally let the Narendra Modi government off the hook by raising the Rafale fighter jet issue, which was a non-sequitur in the context of the CBI blowup. The Rafale question has simply not picked up enough momentum or ammunition because no one has done enough homework to dig out the details that will put the government on the defensive. As a matter of fact, the government has not faced any serious challenge over the Rafale deal because the serious questions, and there are many, have not been hurled. The problem in the CBI trouble was the CBI itself. It is not about what it did or did not do, or what it was asked to do by the government. As a matter of fact, the embarrassment for the government has not come from the Opposition parties but from its own appointees — Mr Verma and Mr Asthana.
The Rafale issue is, however, waiting to explode — not because the Opposition parties and the independent critics of the government have done due diligence but the government, with its own statements of half-truths, is walking into its own booby trap. No one has questioned the quality of the Rafale aircraft itself. It is all about the replenishing of the Indian Air Force’s diminishing squadron strength and the government’s lack of policy to replenish it.
The CBI trouble may be hogging the headlines but it is not the most important issue facing the country, nor does it pose a challenge to the government. But it shows that the Narendra Modi government has lost its foothold and it has been flailing its hands. But there are more important things than this one. The refusal of US President Donald Trump to be the chief guest at the 2019 Republic Day parade would not have been a big issue if the government had not tried to trumpet the choice of chief guest as a trophy to be displayed. The Modi government should have learnt that India’s power and importance does not need any endorsement through the presence of an American President at the Republic Day celebrations. India remains powerful even if the head of a small state in the Pacific Ocean were to be the chief guest. The Prime Minister’s bravura at his meetings with world leaders in New Delhi as well as overseas in 2014 and 2015 look flaky in retrospect.
The real major problem that the country faces, and indirectly the Narendra Modi government too, is that of the sharp rise in the international crude oil prices and the falling rate of the rupee against the dollar. It would have been seen as a natural market fluctuation, but the BJP, in the last year of the Manmohan Singh government, had carped on the issue of the falling rupee, and had claimed credit for the rupee gaining for three years in the `60-plus range. And it claimed credit for the reduced current account deficit (CAD) because of the consequent reduction in the import bill. Now that the import bill is rising because of the oil account, the government imposes restrictions on what it calls luxury and non-essential import items. Exports have not shown any improvement, and the government has not come up with any imaginative policy to boost exports.
If Prime Minister Modi, finance minister Arun Jaitley and other ministers had not boasted about how they had managed to restore the sagging economy of 2013-14, then the criticism for its acts of omission and commission on the economic front would have been less harsh. Mr Jaitley’s arguments and explanations lack conviction and appear to be an attempt to clutch at the proverbial straws. Mr Modi’s silence does not any more smack of hauteur as much as the helplessness of a besieged leader.