Union minister Arun Jaitley on Saturday said that it is the elected governments and not “non-accountable institutions” that have the ultimate responsibility at the Centre and in the states. “Non-accountability” of an institution cannot become a mask for corruption or inaction, he said, adding that the nation is more important than any institution or government.

Speaking at the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture organised by a think-tank in New Delhi, the finance minister said: “Are we weakening the authority of the elected and creating a power shift in favour of non-accountables? Ultimately at the Centre or state, it’s only the elected who are accountable. The non-accountable are not accountable. The nation that is India, is higher than any institution or government.”

Jaitley’s remarks came in the wake of a power tussle within the Central Bureau of Investigation, after which the Centre sent the agency’s top two officers on leave. The matter has now gone to the Supreme Court. The remarks also came a day after Reserve Bank of India Deputy Governor Viral Acharya said governments that do not respect a central bank’s independence will incur the wrath of financial markets.

“Can non-accountability be a mask for corruption? Can it be a ground for investigative adventurism, or can it, as in case of other non-accountable institutions, be a ground for inaction?” Jaitley said, without naming any particular institution. “What does the nation do? It is a major challenge.”

Jaitley said that the country is “taller” than any institution. “And therefore, when we deal with non-accountable institutions, which is a challenge of the day, we will have to keep these challenges in mind,” he said. “And those who think right will perhaps reflect on this.”

He also spoke about the recent Supreme Court judgement allowing women of all ages entry into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. The verdict led to frenzied demonstrations in the state as protestors sought to prohibit women between the ages of 10 to 50 from entering the shrine.

Jaitley said the Constitution gives every citizen the right to life and the right to practise and profess the religion of one’s choice as well giving minorities the right to run their own institutions. One right cannot encroach upon the other and everything has to co-exist, said the minister.

“Rights emanating out of marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance, etc… all should be governed by the constitutional rights of equality and dignity,” said Jaitley. “When it comes to religious rituals and management of religion, unless the practice is obnoxious and hostile to human values, the same can go into the fundamental right to religion and the right to manage your institution.”

Jaitley emphasised that India will never have a state religion and will protect those in the minority, reported the Hindustan Times. Minorities will have full freedom to practice their religion and so will the others in the majority, he said.

The minister identified corruption, terrorism, and the falling standards of public discourse as the main challenges facing the country. While terrorism has been eliminated from Punjab, decreased in the North-East and almost wiped out from South India, it still remains rooted in Jammu and Kashmir, he said.