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Credibility crisis

 Editorial |  2017-01-24 16:27:31.0  |  New Delhi

Credibility crisis

There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for the former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, Ranjit Sinha. On Monday, the Apex Court directed the country's premier investigating agency to ascertain whether Sinha misused his power in the coal block allocation scam. During his tenure as CBI Chief, Sinha reportedly met several suspects accused of corruption and bribe-giving in the allocation of coal fields to private firms at his residence. Newly minted CBI director Alok Verma will oversee the investigation, looking into the allegations of "abuse of authority" prima facie committed by his predecessor to scuttle investigation and enquiries in coal block allocation cases. This will be the first such instance where a CBI Director will conduct a criminal investigation against a former Chief of the agency. One of the key documents that the SIT will study is the report of the court-appointed panel headed by M L Sharma, a former Special Director of the agency that had prima facie indicted Sinha in the matter and found the visitors' book to be authentic. The panel found that Sinha tampered with the proceedings of the coal scam probe and his decisions were influenced by meeting with the accused. It is imperative to note that the former CBI director has not been convicted of any crime yet.

Back in 2014, the Supreme Court questioned the agency's credibility, during its assessment of the coal scam probe, calling it a "caged parrot speaking in its master's voice". Sinha's 'open door' policy towards politicians, corporate honchos, and lobbyists implicated in the 2G telecom and coal scams cannot be brushed away. The former CBI director's visitors' log book was virtually a catalogue of names with scam-scarred pasts and allegations too grave. Sinha's fate in the matter was sealed in 2014 after the visitors' diary at his residence revealed that he met two top Reliance ADAG officials nearly 50 times, despite corruption charges pending against the company in the 2G scam. It was also being charged that these visits coincided with Sinha's alleged attempt to file an affidavit which sought to "defuse" the charges against the company. In a petition filed before the apex court, the Centre for Public Interest Litigation alleged that the visitors' entry register at the former CBI director's had cast serious aspersions on his ability to fairly investigate the 2G spectrum allocation case against Reliance Telecom, which it found to be "very disturbing". Besides Reliance, there were allegations that he met several politicians and influential people against whom CBI had registered a probe. Consequently, Sinha was taken off the 2G spectrum allocation case after the court took cognisance of these alleged improprieties merely one month before he was due to retire. He was also accused of scuttling the probe in the coal scam. Earlier, the Apex Court had expressed annoyance with Sinha for meetings with several charged in the coal scam at his official residence in the absence of investigating officers, including Devendra Darda, son of Congress leader Vijay Darda, who is also another accused in the case. Unfortunately, this was not the first time Sinha has found himself in the spotlight. The 1974-batch cadre IPS officer was shifted out of investigations in the fodder scam way back in 1996, when he was accused by his colleague, UN Biswas, of scuttling investigations ostensibly to save Lalu Yadav and other powerful individuals involved.

The bottom line is that Ranjit Sinha left the agency under a cloud of a credibility crisis. If the top court of this country was convinced that he shouldn't handle one of the most sensitive cases because of evidence which has come into public domain, will we ever know whether evidence exists in similar other high profile cases? The ghost of Sinha's past continues to haunt the credibility of the CBI. The media remembers his stint as one where the Apex Court ended up describing the CBI as a "caged parrot". Despite the obvious institutional shortcomings, the truth is that the agency also became a "caged parrot" perhaps because Sinha wanted it to behave like one. One look at the spate of high-profile cases handled by the tainted official and their eventual outcomes present a rather disturbing picture of how a leading investigative agency crawled under pressure from ministers from the former Central government and large private corporations when asked to bend. Such institutional failures, seemingly orchestrated by the likes of Sinha, present a rather bleak picture of the CBI's lack of autonomy from political influence and large private corporations. For the time being, however, the apex court is still ascertaining the degree to which such institutional failures have occurred. During the second term of the United Progressive Alliance government, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party often accused the then ruling Congress of using the Central Bureau of Investigation to further their political objectives. Often mocked as the 'Congress Bureau of Investigation', the previous government was accused of using the investigative agency to protect senior party leaders, their relations and ministers from a slew of cases, and throttle the progress of political adversaries. Fast forward to 2017, and the same allegations have been levelled against the ruling BJP government. Moreover, the Modi government's entire role in the Sinha affair has also come under the microscope. If the BJP is serious about its criticism of the CBI under the UPA, their government at the Centre must take measures to reform the agency and ensure that it does not continue to sing the tune of whoever is in power in Delhi.

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