January 25, 2020
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Puppets In Gumshoes

A crony-capitalist society can’t but produce sleuths-on-strings

Puppets In Gumshoes
Illustration by Sorit
Puppets In Gumshoes

The Hon’ble Supreme Court was recently compelled to sketch an apt metaphor: the CBI, it said, is a caged parrot. Then, a Bangalore court called the Intelligence Bureau (IB) a pigeon. Surely no compliments intended, for the name-calling was directed at two federal policing agencies. How, then, would the garden variety police forces (state-level police forces and some of the smaller paramilitaries) fare on the Supreme Court’s scale of wretchedness? Would they be equated with amoebae, bacteria or viruses? Or with serous, pre-biotic fluid?

Biology tells us evolution is unidirectional. Morality, perhaps, is not governed by the laws of evolution. Indeed, the history of the CBI is one of regression and progressive diminution. Till the other day, the CBI cut such a heroic figure. The entry of an ID card-flashing CBI officer has electrified many a film scene. How and when did the transformation from hero to joker  take place? In a crony-capitalistic order in which the state is captive, “society naturally divides itself into the very few and the many”, according to its constituents’ “unequal faculties of acquiring property”. Such layering is most likely to put together in politicians, civil servants, power brokers and pimps. Public spending has increased sev­eral-fold and this has dramatically enlarged the corrupting interface between the consenting public servant and the obliging client. Dozens of new laws have brought more and more areas of our private and public concern under bureaucratic gaze and control, creating enormous opportunities for rent-seeking. Corruption naturally comes to occupy the centrestage of public concern. Overwhelmed, governments all over resort to the strategy of what Leo Strauss calls a “necessary lie”, in which rulers, to distract people from problems closer at hand, feed them fables to keep them peaceful and pacified. Zero tolerance to corruption is the avowed goal of this government. It is also the supreme exemplar of the idea of “necessary lie”. 

The neo-liberal discourse, however, tends to treat corruption as a purely economic issue—a market transaction in informal services in a bureaucracy-infested, over-regulated state. Bribery is purged of its moral connotations and made respectable as a facilitation fee for services in a transaction between socially anonymous partners. In a society on a roller-coaster ride to the abyss of consumerism, the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality is bridged by an evermore strident cry for hygiene in public life. Such a society dupes itself with foolish expectations and sets extravagant goals for its investigative agencies. Pining for an independent CBI is one such nostrum. 

The CBI is no longer required to handle crimes in the ordinary sense of the term; more often than not it is the criminality of governments—their involvement in bribery and payoffs, their efforts to subvert parliamentarians, their involvement in fake encounters and engineering systemic pogroms, you name it—that keeps the CBI’s hands full. If it is not the government, it is its more formidable patrons, the super-rich, in whose gigantic shadow the government casts its miserable tent.

But, as in times when crimes and perpetrators were painted on scales less grand, it is still the sole prerogative of the government (I include the leader of the opposition as a representative of government in exile, and thus an interested party) to appoint the CBI director, and equip, outfit and determine the working of the organisation.

For the last several decades, ambitious leaders have sought to create loyal battalions of bureaucratic palace guards who, if they pass the loyalty test, are exempted from every other. The changed environment has led to a proliferation of officers with a natural tendency to voluntary servitude. Blind obedience confers a massive selective advantage over other officers and bureaucrats; the courage to stand up renders them incapable of finding a foothold in the fragile ecology of power and they invariably fall by the wayside. So the parrot cannot but speak in his masters’ voices, because he is wired like that, protein-coded for blind obedience.

Hegel proclaimed long ago that “self-interested egotism” is the very ideology of such crony-capitalist societies. The inhabitants of Hegel’s “spiritual kingdom of animals” find it less than useful to invest their time and effort in institutions of integrity and fair play. Given the time and a favourable environment, regression is but natural. As long as an environment conducive to the evolution of autonomous, rational, conscious morality is not created, caged parrots and pigeons will abound.

(The writer is a former home guards DGP of Bihar.)

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