In the 70 mm cacophonic build up to the 2014 general elections, a recurring theme was the hype around the so-called ‘Gujarat model’. The BJP’s narrative through the campaign was that the ascent of Narendra Modi would ensure that the status quoist elites of Lutyens Delhi would get a whiff of fresh air from Gandhinagar, and that what Gujarat thinks today, India would think tomorrow: today, it is that very ‘Gujarat model’ which is under the scanner as the controversy in the CBI, the country’s premier investigation agency, has played out almost like a dangerous ‘gang war’ where crime meets political intrigue.
What is the Gujarat model? In political terms, it means the near decimation of all potential claimants, both within the BJP and outside, to Mr Modi’s stature as the Supreme Leader. Where once the BJP in Gujarat had a ‘parivar’ of senior leaders, by 2014, there was only one unquestioned ‘Big Boss’. The underlying political ‘mission’ was perhaps best captured in a slogan by BJP President Amit Shah’s early promise of a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’, or in his more recent boast that the BJP would rule India for the next 50 years. Since the lotus has bloomed in Gujarat for more than 20 years now, and the party is now in power in as many as 20 states, Mr Shah may well claim that there is reason for him to feel optimistic of his party’s hegemonical position in the future.
But to make it more attractive, the ‘Gujarat model’ was pitched not so much as an exercise in ‘pure’ politics but as reflecting a deeper commitment to an alluring notion of ‘vikas’ or development. The well-crafted images of Gujarat’s shining ports and highways, 24x 7 power supply and rapid urbanisation were advertised as proof that Mr Modi’s style of ‘efficient’ governance would usher in a new era of high growth, prosperity and an assured place on the global table of world super-powers. The messaging was clear: ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ offered a prototype model for a Vibrant India of the future. The darker aspects of the Gujarat story, be it deeply divided communities or glaring regional and income inequalities, were glossed over.
But perhaps the most distinctive sales pitch for the ‘Gujarat model’ was the branding of prime minister Modi himself as a tough and decisive leader who would cut through the red tapism of a slothful and inefficient state apparatus. Gujarat was widely praised, especially by the country’s business elites, as a ‘single window’ clearance state where access to the individual mattered more than any institutional discipline. Stories, some possibly apocryphal, abounded of how just one call to the chief minister’s office (CMO) in Gandhinagar was enough to get ‘your work done’. The checks and balances, often crucial in governmental decision-making, had been dispensed with, in an attempt to ensure that the entire system was aligned to the wishes of an individual.
This ‘single window’ all powerful CMO meant that even anti corruption watchdogs were made subservient to the political executive. The conflict between Mr Modi and the Gujarat governor over the appointment of a state Lokayukta is a classic example of how the Modi government in Gandhinagar was unwilling to cede space to even a constitutional authority when it came to critical appointments. The manner in which the state human rights commission and information commission were marginalized is also a reflection of a government that was uneasy with the notion of facing any potential embarrassment as a result of greater public scrutiny.
This ‘Gujarat model’ with its centralizing tendencies might have worked in a relatively small state but now finds itself under strain when sought to be replicated in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) at the Centre where the diverse nature of work and sheer scale of the government machine militates against any obsessively ‘controlling’ mindset. The unprecedented ‘war’ at the top of the CBI is only the latest example of what happens when a model of governance is imposed from above in a manner that constrains autonomous decision-making in key institutions.
This crisis has been building ever since the PMO decided to literally try and force a controversial Gujarat IPS officer Rakesh Asthana onto the country’s premier investigation agency as its director. It was only a Supreme Court intervention that prevented a silent coup from being completed. Asthana was just one of several Gujarat IPS/IAS officers brought into crucial government positions. A roll call in the PMO, senior bureaucracy and investigating agencies reveal a disproportionate number of Gujarat cadre officers, a majority of whom had worked closely with the prime minister in his previous avatar.
It could be argued that Mr Modi is simply following a precedent set by most prime ministers who have hand-picked officers with whom they share a strong personal rapport. But choosing bureaucrats to stay within ones ‘comfort zone’ is one thing, seeking to disregard constitutional norms and institutional independence while making critical appointments is quite another. If the easing out of Raghuram Rajan as RBI governor, exposed the government to the charge that it was intolerant of alternate dissenting voices, howsoever credible, the CBI controversy is a pointer to a potentially even more damaging accusation: the Modi government is seeking to intervene in politically sensitive cases and protect ‘tainted’ officers.
Remember, the prime minister’s biggest calling card has been his self-styled image as a crusader against corruption, best defined in his one-liner, ‘na khaoonga na khane doonga’. Now, if within 24 hours of an FIR being filed accusing Mr Asthana of virtually running an extortion racket, the CBI director Alok Verma who triggered the FIR is removed and the investigation team changed, what is the message being sent out? Was he removed because of a turf war or because, as has been speculated, he was planning to investigate the contentious Rafale deal? Mr Asthana too may have been reluctantly forced out but will the serious charges against him be fully investigated or buried in the sands of short lived public memories? It maybe time for the prime minister to reveal his ‘man kee baat’ on these uncomfortable questions.
Post-script: When the UPA was in power, the CBI was classified as a ‘caged parrot’ by the Supreme Court so what tag should we now attach to a CBI split wide open under the NDA? A vulture perhaps, feeding on its own carcass of dwindling credibility as an agency free of political interference?