Indian apex court works truce | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 09, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:45 PM, February 09, 2019

Indian apex court works truce

But it may be the lull before a fresh storm

In the end, it was left to the Indian Supreme Court to bring down the political temperature which shot up furiously following the confrontation between the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's dispensation over the Central Bureau of Investigations attempt to interrogate the Kolkata Police Commissioner in connection with a multi-billion Rupee ponzi scam.

The apex court bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, gave a balanced ruling which addressed the concerns of the two feuding sides. On one hand, it asked the Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar, a senior Indian Police Service (IPS) Officer, to appear before the CBI (under the federal government) for questioning which the anti-graft agency has been pressing for and on the other hand stopped his arrest, at least for now, something that Mamata did not want. No wonder, both sides claimed vindication of their respective stance in the Supreme Court order.

However, the top court wanted the questioning of Kumar to take place in a “neutral” place—Shillong. Implicit in the choice of place is the highly politically polarised ambience in West Bengal and the fear that the interrogation may not be done properly. That was something not unexpected after the surcharged atmosphere sparked by the huge mobilisation of West Bengal police which briefly detained the team of CBI officers who had gone to the residence of Kumar on February 3 to quiz and possibly arrest him and the sit-in protest started by Mamata on the same night.

While the apex court may have succeeded in lowering the heat generated by the two-front (legal and political) battle, the threat of fresh flare-ups remains for three reasons: (i) interrogation of Kumar (ii) the CBI's filing of a contempt of court petition against the Chief Secretary, the Director General of Police of West Bengal and Kumar and (iii) the federal Home Ministry asking the West Bengal government to take disciplinary action against five senior Indian Police Service officers of West Bengal cadre, including Kumar, who “participated” in Mamata's sit-in protest “in violation of” service rules. The federal government is the cadre-controlling authority of IPS officers across India. Surely, all this has the potential to set off a fresh round of politico-legal battle between the Mamata government and the federal dispensation.

The standoff, however, tends to push into the background two key issues: (1) the need to do justice to lakhs of ordinary people defrauded by the ponzi scheme and (2) a politically impartial bureaucracy in the world's most populous democracy. The investigations into the scam, both by West Bengal government and the CBI, have gone on for the last six years. The CBI has either interrogated or arrested a number of people chit fund company heads and Mamata-led Trinamool Congress leaders but completion of probes remains a far cry.

In an elected-democracy, political parties are known to cultivate employees at different levels, more so among top civil servants. It is a common practice in democracies to find a reshuffle at the top echelon of civil bureaucracy every time there is a change of government. Prime ministers and chief ministers pick their own sets of bureaucrats to work with after assessing their comfort levels and the need to push through their economic programmes. What adds to the complexities in India is the prevalence of a federal structure under which the federal government is the controlling authority of Indian Administrative Service and IPS officers and the authorities in states decide on their transfers and promotions. As a result, the officers have to deal with dual power centres. The problem arises when the reshuffle is prompted less by considerations of efficiency and more by allegiance, personal or ideological. Largely, however, partisanship is not common in the Indian bureaucracy even though complete neutrality is a utopia.

For decades since independence, this problem was not a major issue as the Congress Party was the only party in power not only in India but also in most of the states. But as more and more parties opposed to the Congress, particularly the regional parties, gained prominence since the 1970s and also power in states, the bureaucrats started facing increasing difficulties in coping with the political executives belonging to different parties at the centre and the states. This often caused a tiff and many of the civil servants were caught in the crossfire. Transfers and promotions were often used by the political masters to reward or punish bureaucrats. Many of them then choose to be on the right side of the powers that be. It has often been found that a group of top bureaucrats who worked with one regime are shunted out by the next one, especially in the event of a change of party in power. For quite a number of years, the current Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi was at loggerheads with the Modi government over postings of bureaucrats. There have been a few cases when upright officers stood up to the political masters and were subjected to frequent transfers. What is unfortunate is when dissent by bureaucrats is viewed through a political prism.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.

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