A question to Modi

Justice R.A. Mehta holds out a sobering reminder of the creeping politicisation of institutions

The office of lokayukta is a work in progress, with the nature and extent of its powers varying greatly across the states. The experience of lokayuktas in different states is a working guide to finding a balance between instituting an effective anti-corruption watchdog and retaining enough safeguards to prevent the possibility of an unaccountable super-auditor. Therefore, most controversies have come with the collateral benefit of lessons in the evolution of the office. Not so the fracas over the appointment of the Gujarat lokayukta. It is of a different order. Justice R.A. Mehta's decision declining to assume office should sound the warning bell for the lasting damage that can be wrought on institutions by excessive politicisation.

Weeks after the Supreme Court turned down the Narendra Modi government's challenge to his appointment, Justice Mehta has said that the episode had "denigrated" the office and that "the appointment had lost all grace and dignity". His objection, he wrote to the Gujarat governor and the chief justice of the high court, rotated on the message implicit in the government's legal challenge that since he was not perceived to be pro-government, he would be anti-government. For Modi, trying to gather momentum for his national campaign for the 2014 general elections on a platform of governance, Mehta's letter is an interrogating document. The tendency to slot every functionary as "with us or against us" is depressingly widely shared in the states and at the Centre, but Modi has been particularly prone to using it as a self-servingly polarising strategy. Recall his innuendo against the then chief election commissioner a decade ago. Mehta's letter demands of him a clear response.

Mehta's reluctance to assume the office must also compel sober reflection. What are the consequences for India when partisan politics over key institutions and even junior administrative posts coarsens the discourse to the extent that qualified persons find themselves unable to function? What will it take to clear a middle ground in our politics for parties to reach out to each other to sustain action on privileging due procedure to fireproof our institutions against political manipulation?

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