So Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah flexed their muscle and, unbothered by constitutional niceties, deployed the much-worn out CBI to question the Kolkata Commissioner of Police, Rajeev Kumar.
Even before the loud comparisons to a banana republic could start, Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee went on a dharna along with her police commissioner, and India saw the surreal spectacle of CBI officers detained by the police.
In one fell swoop, the Modi and Shah duo achieved opposition unity and put Mamata Banerjee at the heart of the opposition. It has to be said that Chanakya, who is Shah's often-stated role model, would have frowned at these strong arm tactics.
Democracy in institutions was given the short shrift. The centre going to the Supreme Court can hardly serve as a demonstration of democratic traditions.
The Modi government has now fully demonetised democracy.
The opposition charge of the CBI being an ally of PM Modi is fully justified. The ostensible reason for the CBI team to go looking for the commissioner was his lack of cooperation in the Saradha chit fund scam. The chief accused, Mukul Roy, a former Trinamool Congress leader and Mamata Banerjee's second-in-command, is currently in the BJP, hoping to stave off investigative agencies. He was not even spearheading the BJP charge in Kolkata, which was given to Shah's closest lieutenant, Kailash Vijayavargiya.
The bickering opposition united and stood up together to be counted. It was advantage Banerjee as the Congress, AAP, Samajwadi Party, BSP, NCP and even the National Conference rushed to pledge their support.
If the game plan of the centre was to achieve opposition unity it is now presented in spades.
So what provoked the Modi and Shah misadventure? A pliable CBI Director, M Nageswara Rao (appointed interim chief in the post-midnight coup in October), on his last working day, and the desperation to ensure that Bengal makes up the seats that the BJP will lose in north India in the general elections to be held in three months.
Says a cabinet minister ruefully "our tragedy is that the two men who now run the government don't get democratic values. They were aiming for Congress-mukt Bharat and Mamata-mukt Bengal... sadly all that we have done with our overreach is uniting the opposition."
To date, all investigative agencies have been misused by those at the centre, but the Modi government, with its utter disdain for niceties, is ensuring that the CBI and Enforcement Directorate act as glue for the opposition.
Take the case of the raids on Akhilesh Yadav the day after he announced his alliance with Mayawati in the bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh with 80 Lok Sabha seats. Or the fact that just before the Karnataka assembly election, the CBI dropped all charges against the Reddy brothers of the Bellary mining scam fame.
The same leader says "even if you deploy the CBI against the opposition, there has to be some finesse. Not this? Why break a butterfly on a wheel?"
The ostensible provocation for the CBI action is the denial of permission to the choppers of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and central minister Smriti Irani for campaigning in Bengal.
Did this really merit the nuclear-level response of sending the CBI in? Besides, since Bengal has withdrawn the state's automatic consent for a central criminal agency, legal experts say that under the federal clause of the constitution, the centre has to take permission from the chief secretary - the state's top official.
Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister is on record pushing for the federal rights of states. So this volte-face as PM is bizarre. Equally bizarre is the fact that the commissioner of Kolkata is an IPS official whose cadre controlling authority is the Ministry of Home Affairs. He could retire and happily join Banerjee's party but sitting on dharna while still in the government is beyond the pale.
So while Banerjee has gained traction among the public, the cranky opposition is united, all that Modi has achieved by reducing politics to a zero sum game is the dilution of democracy and scoring a spectacular own goal in Bengal, where the BJP was emerging as the main opposition to Didi's Trinamool.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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