Time to cure the rotting bureau
Ranjit Sinha is not the first director of the central bureau of investigation (CBI) to sully the organisation’s name. He will not be the last. He has several illustrious predecessors who contributed substantially to take India’s premier investigative agency on a downhill journey, in league with the political executive.
Sinha thought brazenness was the best defence for his indiscretion. In his long career he had gotten away with it many a time – till hubris caught up with him, less than a month before his scheduled retirement on December 2. The supreme court on November 20 found it dubious that he was maintaining liaison with those accused in the 2G scam, and asked him to recuse from the investigation.
Is that the end of the matter? Sinha’s indictment and the resultant hullabaloo will prove to be a red herring if the larger issues pertaining to the functioning of the CBI remain unaddressed. Look at the manner in which Sinha’s predecessor, Amar Pratap Singh, got embroiled in a controversy over his friendship with Moin Qureshi, a meat exporter from Kanpur facing tax evasion charges. The communication between Singh and Qureshi that has become public is surely beyond friendly chat. Singh’s tenure witnessed a partisan use of the CBI as an instrument by its political masters to intimidate their rivals. Singh’s proximity to Sonia Gandhi’s close confidant Ahmed Patel was an open secret.
In fact, Sinha and Singh followed a pattern set by many (though not all) of their predecessors and legitimised by their political masters irrespective of their parties. There was a ray of hope when the supreme court expressed its desire to define autonomy for the CBI while examining the coal block allocation case. The court took exception to the scrutiny of and alterations in the charge-sheet by the then law minister Ashwani Kumar. The move was, however, scuttled under the pressure of the executive which would not let go its control over the agency.
The CBI is, as of now, worse than a “caged parrot”, a term used by the SC to describe the organisation’s predicament. It is crippled by self-doubt and infighting. The manner in which the CBI chief’s lawyer Vikas Singh named DIG-level officer Santosh Rastogi as a mole, passing probe-related information to advocate Prashant Bhushan, is without a parallel in any police organisation. Similarly, the SC’s rebuke to a battery of CBI officers present in the court on the same day to defend their boss reflects poorly on their professionalism.
It would be naive to blame a few individuals for letting the organisation come to such a pass. For the past three decades, the agency has been under immense pressure from the political executive as well as the critical scrutiny of the judiciary for all the wrong reasons. It began with the high-profile Bofors bribery case which proved to be Rajiv Gandhi’s undoing. Though the case never reached a conclusion, successive CBI chiefs tried to play to the tune of their political masters.
How many people have forgotten the drama of CBI chief Joginder Singh flying to Switzerland during the Deve Gowda regime and getting himself photographed with the Bofors papers? The end result was that the prime accused, Ottavio Quattrocchi, died peacefully last year with all the kickback money duly credited in his account. Joginder Singh’s successors also tried to build their careers by taking up the Bofors case to suit the interests of their political masters. Ironically, relief for Quattrocchi came during the tenure of Vijay Shankar, who was seen to be vigorously pursuing the Bofors case as additional director during the NDA regime.
Over the past three decades, there is a growing realisation that the CBI is less of an investigative agency and more of a potent political tool. This prompted the SC to set the guidelines for the selection of the CBI chief by the government in consultation with the leader of opposition. Even after this careful process, the outcome was the selection of a candidate with not-so-good credentials. It only confirms the apprehension that the government would prefer expediency.
Nobody knows this better than prime minister Narendra Modi. The manner in which the CBI was let loose against him during his term as Gujarat chief minister was not only vindictive but, at times, criminal. Police officers involved in fake encounters were cajoled to make submissions that could implicate him and his government. Some accused officers were promised immunity should they fall in line and testify against the state government. In Gujarat, the CBI at times was playing the role of the persecutor more than the investigator. Some of the top officers were actively colluding with a section of Congress leaders to pursue a political agenda. Modi survived those ordeals to reach the top. But he is quite conscious of the potential of the CBI to play a partisan role and its consequences.
At the same time, the higher judiciary needs to be cautious about assigning sundry cases to the CBI and monitoring them regularly in the court. This has created a piquant situation where officers are found to be at loggerheads. In the 2G scam, motives are imputed to genuine differences of opinion on the line of investigation. Senior officers point out that such judicial scrutiny on regular basis in the open court has eroded officers’ confidence.
The greater reliance of the court on the CBI emanates from the fact that the state investigative agencies like the crime branch (also known as CID), which were supposed to be counterparts of the CBI in the states, stand discredited. These agencies can be restored to efficiency and health if police reforms are carried out across the country. Despite SC orders to implement the reforms, the issue hangs fire.