Narendra Modi and Amit Shah together wear the same, well-fitting hat. That is fortunate. If each had worn a different hat, there would be too many rabbits hopping around, many more than even their alert subjects could catch.

The latest surprise may not have the stamp of ingenuity now associated with the duo. But it has caused a sizeable flutter in the dovecots all the same. My own view is that it will only affirm the duo’s intention of destabilising age-old rules in the institution of policing where state police cadres were separated, acknowledged and respected, except in very unusual circumstances.

The administration headed by Modi and Shah, appears to be bent on destroying old established institutions of governance and replacing them with new ones built in their likeness. A police force that does not attempt to provide service to the people but treats the people as zombies who bow and scrape before the rulers is not an ideal to strive for.

But that is obviously what they have decided must be their contribution to our country’s glory. They will certainly be remembered by police historians for their out-of-the-box thinking, snap decisions and also, alas, morale-crushing use (or is it misuse?) of the power of appointments.

Principle discarded

Rakesh Asthana, an IPS officer of the Gujarat cadre, was appointed Police Commissioner of Delhi on July 27, a few days before he was slated to retire from service. The Supreme Court had stipulated in its Prakash Singh judgment that only officers with at least six months remaining before superannuation would be eligible to lead state police forces. The principle was clear. Yet it was discarded like a used napkin and it was effected in one sweep of regal hands.

My friend of many years, Prakash Singh, hopes that some disgruntled or bold soul, among the many hopefuls in the Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram and Union Territory cadre that services the Delhi administration will rise up from the ashes and challenge the appointment in court. The judgment, of course, would be delivered well after Asthana retires one or even two years hence. The damage planned would have been completed and done with by then.

Some knowledgeable readers may point out that I have no legs to stand on to write this piece. A caveat, on my side, is called for. I, too, was appointed police commissioner of Delhi in May 1985 though I belonged to the Maharashtra cadre. True. I was “rescued” by an AGMUT cadre officer who pointed out to Rajiv Gandhi that he was available and willing. My assignment was changed to one that was more to my liking. I was tasked to head a superb paramilitary force, the Central Reserve Police Force.

My later appointments as Director General of Police Gujarat and then Punjab were made under unusual circumstances. In both jobs, I did not meet with hostile receptions from my IPS colleagues of those states because of those unusual circumstances then prevailing. So, having recorded my caveats, I proceed to comment on Asthana’s unusual appointment.

In my four-month stay in Gujarat, as DGP from July to October 1985, I did not meet Rakesh Asthana. Recruited in 1984, he was under training at the National Academy at Hyderabad at the time of my sojourn in Gujarat. I heard his name mentioned only when he had an open spat with his chief, Alok Verma, in the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Verma, one of his batch mates told me, had a good reputation. I then needed to check on Asthana. That was simpler as he hailed from the Gujarat cadre with which I was familiar.

My inquiries revealed that Asthana, too, had a sound reputation for integrity. He was particularly good, in the investigation of crime. So he was entrusted with the Godhra train burning case. The press in their time-tested manner of inventing controversies led him unwittingly into a remark that contradicted what his chief minister had told them earlier and of which he was unaware.

Too many young, promising officers have learnt this lesson in their journey through the maze. It is unfortunate, but true. Very few, only the intrepid and principled ones can navigate the waters of political control over the police and come up trumps.

If what my junior former colleagues in Gujarat tell me has substance (and I have no doubts about their independent and individual judgments), then Rakesh Asthana later wormed his way into the good books of Modi and Shah by his ability to adjust to political needs.

AGMUT colleagues may be dismayed by the imposition but a much bigger hurdle that Asthana will have to cross is the very closed fortress built by Delhi’s Station House Officers whose help at the cutting-edge of policing he will need to deliver to the expectations of his political bosses.

To navigate the latent distrust of the local IPS cadre, the selfish interests of the cutting-edge operatives and the expectations of the duo that matter will require a magician’s wand.

Julio Ribeiro served in several senior positions as a police officer and was India’s ambassador to Romania.