On 28 February, the arrest of Karti Chidambaram, son of Congress leader and former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, by the Central Bureau of Investigation was not just big political news; it was an unprecedented development, snapped as it did the oligarchs’ code. It is a simple code that the high and mighty of Lutyens’ Delhi have religiously observed for decades: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.
This is the reason why, howsoever loud the public outcry may be over a scam, the big fish rarely get caught; only minor wrongdoers face the music. The most recent instance is the Punjab National Bank scandal: Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi are having a gala time in foreign countries at the expense of the public sector bank, while lower-level employees are being prosecuted by law-enforcement agencies.
Since Independence, the behaviour of India’s elites has illustrated the iron law of oligarchy. The adoption of socialism as economic policy opened huge opportunities for the ruling elites to fatten themselves, so they decided to enjoy the perks of power amiably. Spelled out by German-Italian political sociologist and economist Robert Michels (1876-1936), the law of oligarchy says that all organisations, regardless of the ideals and ideology they subscribe to, will inexorably move towards rule by a select few—towards oligarchy.
“Michels argued that organisational oligarchy resulted, most fundamentally, from the imperatives of modern organisation: competent leadership, centralised authority, and the division of tasks within a professional bureaucracy,” according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. “These organisational imperatives necessarily gave rise to a caste of leaders whose superior knowledge, skills, and status, when combined with their hierarchical control of key organisational resources such as internal communication and training, would allow them to dominate the broader membership and to domesticate dissenting groups... From this perspective, Michels particularly emphasised the idea that elite domination also flowed from the way rank-and-file members craved guidance by and worshipped their leaders.”
Michels’ law, then, helps us understand the behaviour of Lutyens’ elites: the profession of Gandhian simplicity and socialist ideals on the one hand and egregious lavishness and untold riches on the other; pontificating about peace and morality, while encouraging violence and immorality. Without ever feeling pangs of guilt, without even becoming aware of their own hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness. Another characteristic feature of those who matter is their cliquishness. The parties they represent may be pitted against each other; the ideologies they represent may be antithetical to each other; their fight against each other may appear bitter to the public; but they never forget that they have to hang together. For they are made for and by each other.
Governments come and go; campaigns against corruption keep ebbing and flowing; but the politician-bureaucrat-fixer elites remain ensconced in the salubrious surroundings of Lutyens’ Delhi. They have weathered many a storm; they have withstood the upheavals triggered by idealists like Jayaprakash Narayan and Anna Hazare. Just by hanging together.
So, P. Chidambaram survived almost four years under a regime which vociferously claimed to be against corruption; for he was supported by not only his friends in the ruling party, but also the men and women he had propped up in the power structure. Not that his misdeeds and misdemeanours were not known; many of his actions have been widely known in the corridors of power and media circles. But such have been his clout and the sway of the network he created that nothing happened to him for about 45 months of the Narendra Modi government.
This was despite the fact that a stinger missile called Subramanian Swamy was relentlessly on his trail. Ruling coalition functionaries like Finance Minister Arun Jaitley felt no compunctions or embarrassment in sharing stage with Chidambaram. Here was a man accused of the most serious offences—financial malfeasance, abuse of power, fraud, and even treason (Samjhauta faux pas)—and yet nobody found anything improper in interacting with him.
The implicit presumption was unambiguous: all these cases against Karti are just a charade, keeping the media busy and the populace hopeful; this is shadow boxing, not to be taken seriously. Chidambaram had too many people entrenched in too many important places to be bothered; his and his family’s interests would be protected; they were indeed protected for 45 months.
By the writing of these lines, Karti had already spent a week in custody when it got extended by three days. Further, the Supreme Court refused protection to him from fresh summons and possible arrest by the Enforcement Directorate for alleged money laundering in the INX Media case. The Delhi High Court, though, gave him some relief on Friday when it allowed interim protection to Karti from arrest by ED till 20 March in the INX Media money laundering.
Further, more of Chidambaram Sr’s misdeeds have started surfacing. Questions are being raised about the 80:20 gold import scheme that he launched in 2013. The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) reportedly opposed the scheme, but it was overruled. The DRI had feared round-tripping of black money as well as money laundering. The scheme is said to have caused a loss of Rs 1 lakh crore to the exchequer. The Modi government scrapped it in November 2014.
So, it is not for nothing that the father-son duo is facing the heat. Yet, it is unusual for the crème de la crème of Lutyens’ Delhi to be in such trouble. The oligarchs’ code has clearly been breached.
A fortuitous combination of circumstances is responsible for the surprising turn of events. First and foremost, there is Swamy, the quintessential insider-outsider of the system: he is from Lutyens’ Delhi, but always a thorn in the flesh of the powers that be. His relentlessness has proved to be the nemesis of the Chidambarams. Then there is the Nirav Modi fiasco. Coming after the 2G verdict, it cast a shadow over the Modi government’s commitment to root out corruption. This meant that the shield provided by Chidambaram’s moles in the power structure weakened considerably. And, finally, the pressure from the RSS, a mass organisation, reached the critical point.
We must remember that the oligarchs’ code has only been breached, not smashed. As Swamy says, the former Finance Minister’s people are still there—and yet to be neutralised. Many top Congress leaders are up in arms against the government over the father-son duo’s discomfiture. This, however, doesn’t mean that every Congress leader is angry; many are happy, for they too dislike Chidambaram Sr for his arrogance and misdemeanours. The billion-dollar question, though, is: will the momentum to bring the Chidambarams to book continue? Nobody has an answer to that.