Without much fuss, yet another case against former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao vanished into oblivion recently. This was the pickle scam, in which one Lakhubhai Pathak accused Rao of taking a bribe but not delivering whatever he had promised. In December, a court ruled that there was no evidence to prosecute Rao and dismissed the case.

Why is this of note? Only because this is one more case pursued by our Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that has gone precisely nowhere. I’m not saying Rao was guilty. I don’t know. What I am saying is that the CBI kept intact its very clean record: to my knowledge, it has never succeeded in bringing about a conviction of a single significant Indian politician.

And despite that admirable achievement, too often we find ordinary people who demand and get a CBI inquiry into some crime that has touched them. Who are satisfied when such an inquiry is announced. Who later feel impotent fury when such an inquiry withers away, as it invariably does.

Their mistake lies in the assumption, still too easily made, that such inquiries will result in justice purely because they are conducted by this “independent” agency. Yes, in theory the CBI is an independent agency. I have no way to tell if, in practice, it is less than independent. I am not privy to inside knowledge on the machinations of law and order. But what I can do is look at the evidence, the clean record I mentioned. Not an encouraging sight.

If we measure justice by the number of people the CBI has managed to bring to book – powerful people in particular – the CBI has been a conspicuous failure. Whatever its reason is.

And you can find the same touching faith in the efficacy of the CBI elsewhere as well. There are people who demand new laws – the right to information, or a whistleblower law, or POTA, for some recent examples. Others demand a judicial inquiry into some ghastly event like a riot. Some will pronounce primly that “the law will take its own course” and sit back, convinced that they need do or say no more.

Yet consider, again, the evidence. We have any number of perfectly good laws. Our problem is not a lack of them, but the failure to implement them. So surely we can see by now that the solution is not new laws, but applying the ones we have. Why would we apply a new law any better than we have our existing ones? As for inquiries, they have come and gone by the dozen. By my count, there have been at least eight official inquiries into the 1984 massacre of Sikhs alone; yet a ninth, headed by Justice GT Nanavati, is inquiring on as you read this. (If that doesn’t seem perverse enough to you, try this: Justice Nanavati is also simultaneously inquiring into the bloodshed in Gujarat in 2002). But in punishing the guilty named in inquiries, we have been consistently lax. What purpose, then, do they serve? Why do we demand them, and why are we satisfied when they are instituted?

And in the light of these things, such a statement as “the law will take its own course” is meaningless. Or worse: I would suggest that it even makes us complicit in the failure to deliver justice after great crimes. Because, when the law takes its own course, and we are content to let it do so, the evidence is that it meanders inexorably into a dead end.

When powerful Indians are accused of crimes, whatever and whoever they are, there’s only one hope of ever bringing them to justice. We must insist on subjecting them to our laws, just as we more ordinary Indians would be.
The lesson should be clear. When powerful Indians are accused of crimes, whatever and whoever they are, there’s only one hope of ever bringing them to justice. We must insist on subjecting them to our laws, just as we, the more ordinary Indians would be. No exalted CBI probes, no commissions of inquiry. Just the everyday laws that govern all our lives, powerful ones included. Just the loud demand that they be applied swiftly, impartially and efficiently.

This will bring us a few related benefits. One, a sustained chorus might actually see justice at work where laws are broken. Today, governments have grown adept at defusing outrage by agreeing to inquiries. When we change that demand itself, they may have to actually begin implementing our laws.

Two, we will get over the pretence that merely because we elect them to office, some citizens are special. To my mind, this is the ultimate legacy of the CBIs and the inquiry commissions: they have given us two rungs of citizenry. The lower one is where most of us live, subject to laws and fearful of breaking them. The higher one is occupied by anyone who acquires some power in our country. In its rarefied heights, people are untouched by laws. That is why more and more criminals find their way there. That is why we are congenitally unable to punish people accused of major crimes.

There’s no greater equaliser than the law; but always provided it is applied fairly.

But there is, I have always felt, a third benefit that will flow from concerted demands that our governments apply our laws. That is the greater engagement we will all have with affairs in our country. It will make each of us think more seriously about the value of citizenship, the meaning of being Indian. It will help us build a wiser, stronger India. A country where justice is no mirage, but real.

And in that India, the law might take a very different course.