The question of accountability

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The question of accountability

Friday, 23 June 2023 | Deepak Sinha

The question of accountability

The very foundation on which democracies thrive is the rule of law, and that hinges on the simple premise that nobody is above the law

Comparisons of where we stand in the rankings as a democracy, based on the likes of the Economist’s Democracy Index, are obviously subjective and possibly biased to an extent. The only test that truly counts in these matters is whether those elected can be held accountable for actions while in office. The very foundation on which democracies thrive is the rule of law, which is premised on the belief that actions have consequences and nobody is above the law.

Former President Trump is finally learning this the hard way. Facing trial for allegedly stealing classified government documents, which if proved, may well see him behind bars. This is what accountability looks like in a working democracy, though Americans are not without their own set of challenges. Mr Trump remains extremely popular with the vast majority in the Republican Party, mainly white Anglo-Saxons, who, fearful that their power is rapidly slipping away as the country becomes more diverse, are willing to overlook his transgressions and forego their democratic values.

On applying similar norms to ourselves, despite our claims of being the largest democracy, we are clearly on life-support. Blatant obfuscation of facts, police connivance and judicial apathy, to give the judiciary the benefit of the doubt, ensure that our leaders are never held accountable, however revolting, corrupt or self-serving their actions may have been. In fact, the rule of law remains a mirage for the vast majority of our citizens. Examples over the years are too numerous to quote, the latest being that of Mr Brij Bhushan, the Chairman Wrestling Federation of India, and his alleged misbehaviour with women wrestlers. 

Similarly, heads have not rolled over the tragic Orissa train accident. A foreign hand is suspected of sabotage, opening an escape avenue for those responsible. The fact that the Railway Board had pointed out shortcomings in the maintenance of signalling equipment that led to five similar incidents earlier, of varying degrees of seriousness, has been blithely ignored. As has been the CAGs report points out the misuse of funds, meant for maintenance and replacement of tracks, on items unconnected to maintenance. Despite this rather grim state of affairs, the Railways are busy promoting the Prime Minister’s pet project, flagging off more Vande Bharat train sets, travel on which, to use Mr Tharoor’s obnoxious phrase, the ‘Cattle Classes’, can ill afford. Instead of accepting responsibility and resigning, the railway minister seems comfortable, shamelessly meddling in the CBI investigation.

For that matter take the events unfolding in Manipur. Clearly, this is the “Bhindranwale moment” for Mr Modi’s government, as their man on the spot has gone rogue. Allegations that the Chief Minister, Mr Biren Singh’s, tacit support of hard-line Meitei groups has turned an insurgency on its last legs into a full-fledged ethno-religious civil war, akin to events in Africa, are being bandied about. Manipur’s economic progress has now hit a wall, and events here will spread like wildfire to the rest of the North East, adversely impacting security in this strategic region. The influence wielded by tribal loyalties and trans-border criminal enterprises, involved in drugs and arms smuggling and human trafficking, should not be underestimated.

In military circles, civil war is seen as the culmination of any insurgency, with insurgents confident enough to forsake guerrilla tactics and take on government forces head-on, with secession being their ultimate goal. While the situation in Manipur may not yet be so dire, instances of militants, especially Meitei Groups, confronting Army/Assam Rifle contingents openly have been reported. Undoubtedly, the huge quantity of sophisticated arms “looted” from police armouries gives these militants confidence, as must the fact that the military has not been given a free hand to act.

Yet, despite the ongoing violence, the significance of the government has made no serious efforts to salvage the situation, by either sacking the Chief Minister or declaring President’s Rule, as well as the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to engage or address the situation cannot be lost on anybody. Ironically enough, he has offered to mediate between Ukraine and Russia and his loquaciousness on his American sojourn is difficult to miss. Clearly, the government appears to be complicit in pushing through some misconceived ideological agenda, despite the cost to the Nation, a cost that our Security Forces and citizens will continue to pay in blood and shattered lives in the coming months and years.

Let there also be no doubt that given the strategic importance of the region, it is only a matter of time before the Chinese commence pouring oil on troubled waters, if they have already not begun doing so. It seems that the Prime Minister is deliberately avoiding involving himself, in the vain hope that either the troubles will resolve themselves over time, or they can be left to his underlings to solve. Like many before him, he appears to have fallen into the Nehru trap of wanting to gain international recognition and respect by focusing on larger issues afflicting our world. Unsurprisingly, just like Nehru, he is likely to be overwhelmed by firestorms at home and find his legacy tarnished by his reluctance to confront China as it continues with its depredations on our sovereignty.

(The author, a military veteran is a Visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation and a Senior Visiting Fellow with Peninsula Foundation, Chennai)  

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