Urgent Task for CBI: Reclaiming Public Faith

The World War II was on and British rulers in India found that the spiralling war expenditure has opened a new avenue for the public servants to siphon off public money. They realised the existing police machinery was in no way capable of unearthing malpractices and came up with a Special Police Establishment in 1941 to deal with corruption and bribery in transactions connected to the War and Supply Department. Later, independent India too felt the need for a central agency, which would investigate cases of corruption as well as financial frauds and violation of central fiscal laws among others. It built on the 1941 order, which in the meantime saw several changes and improvements, to set up the CBI in 1963. Since then, the CBI was on the receiving end for its omissions and commissions. But, for all right reasons and that’s the irony!

Adding insult to injury to the CBI is the latest 2G verdict where the special court rejected every single claim of the investigating agency and freed all those accused of corruption and causing loss to the exchequer. This is not the first time that the CBI is finding egg on its face. Whether it is the Bofors, fodder scam, coal scam, the Jain diaries, Lakhubhai Pathak case or the disproportionate assets cases against Hindi heartland leaders – to name a few – the CBI has always been found wanting. The March 2008 Parliamentary Standing Committee report on ‘Working of CBI’ acknowledges that there have been “big events or scams rocking the nation” where CBI is said to have restored public faith in the system. But it goes on to add that whether CBI has been able to fulfil the expectations of the public and its legal mandate is debatable. “There has been erosion in the confidence which the public reposed on CBI in certain matters,” it said. The situation has not changed in the last nine years or one could say it has worsened over the years, with even the Supreme Court describing the CBI a “caged parrot”. Then CBI Director, Ranjit Sinha, was taken off the supervisory role of 2G investigation while he was later found to have discretely met several people agency’s under scanner at his residence!

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What ails the CBI is no more a complex question as the previous experiences have answered it in detail. The officialdom would point to shortage of quality investigators, the burgeoning vacancies and rising number of cases in their kitty as the bottlenecks that pull them behind. But one of the biggest reasons why the CBI fails is not acknowledged by them but by the public and courts – lack of functional autonomy and political interference. The Supreme Court judgement in Vineet Narain case (1997) amplifies it. Inertia of the CBI was a recurrent theme in the judgement. “Inertia was the common rule whenever the alleged offender was a powerful person,” the SC observed in the landmark verdict. It said this made it necessary for them to take measures to ensure permanency in the remedial effect to prevent reversion to inertia of the agencies in such matters.

A close reading of the 2G verdict would show how CBI fell into inertia. The special CBI judge notes the growing lack of enthusiasm in the prosecution and the investigating agency. The 1997 judgement also points to a general impression gaining ground that the central agencies are subject to extraneous pressures and have been indulging in “dilatory tactics” in bringing the guilty to book. It also talks about the need for a proper prosecution to follow a proper investigation. Twenty years have gone after the verdict, the situation remains same. The Vineet Narain judgement had laid down the norms to protect the integrity of the central agencies like CBI and Enforcement Directorate but now the time has once again come to have an analysis of how the central governments sabotaged it.

Using CBI for political gain or purposes is not just a party’s sin. The entire political eco-system participate in it using their favourites posted in the agency. If there was no appeal in the Bofors case, there was no appeal in the acquittal of BJP president Amit Shah in Sohrabuddin fake encounter case too. While a Congress government dilly-dallied on Bofors, the CBI did not bother about an appeal against Shah during the BJP rule. However, within hours, the CBI was ready with a decision to appeal against the 2G verdict. Another example is the disproportionate assets case against Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav or the one against his BSP counterpart Mayawati saw twists and turns according to the political churning in Delhi and elsewhere.

There is an urgent need for the CBI to reclaim its credibility. Public may still demand a CBI inquiry into murder cases and all, but they have stopped trusting the country’s premier investigating agencies when it comes to corruption by the high and mighty. They should re-read the statues and the 1997 judgement and stand up for truth and integrity.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald’s Spotlight on Dec 31, 2017)

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