ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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The Atrophy of the CBI

The CBI’s credibility depends on its personnel’s ability to remain committed to good governing principles.

The end is nigh for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). What was once touted as the “premier investigative agency” in India finds itself torn apart from within and without. The bubbling of discontent within, largely as a result of the rivalry between Director Alok Verma and Special Director R K Asthana, has spilled over into an ugly, no-holds-barred contest of allegations and counter-allegations. It has drawn in the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister’s Office, members of the union cabinet and the national security adviser. It has revealed, once and for all, the rotten core of a little loved (but sometimes necessary) institution.

The CBI’s present disarray, however, is not only due to Verma’s and Asthana’s intrigues, or even the machinations of the Narendra Modi government. Its very origin is hidden in murky bureaucratic obscurity (as the Gauhati High Court pointed out in Navendra Kumar v Union of India in 2013) and it has been governed by a skeletal framework law dating back to 1946. Any reform to its functioning happened only because courts repeatedly poked, prodded, and pushed governments into doing it. Even so, “reforms” have been half-hearted and sometimes couched in bad faith. The multiple attempts to shield high-level bureaucrats from CBI enquiry through the insertion of a provision mandating sanction from the government even before an enquiry is begun are witness to this.

The courts have tried, over the years, to insulate the CBI from such partisan political interference, but to little avail. Whether in empowering the Central Vigilance Commission to oversee the CBI’s functioning or in trying to introduce an element of bipartisanship into the appointment process, the courts’ well-intentioned moves and suggestions have been set at nought by successive administrations less interested in its actual investigative capacity, and more in its use as a weapon of political intrigue.

Multiple governments share the blame for this mess. When in opposition, every party points out (correctly) the blatantly partisan use of the CBI by the union government. When in power, they have been happy to do exactly the same. Nothing illustrates this better than the Telugu Desam Party government in Andhra Pradesh withdrawing its general consent for the CBI’s operations in the state earlier in November 2018. When it was part of the National Democratic Alliance, the party was happy to use the CBI as an instrument to harass opposition leaders in the state. Now that it finds itself out of favour in the union government, it is suddenly conscious of the misuse of the CBI.

The action of the Andhra Pradesh government is not without precedent. State governments in the past have withdrawn such consent, especially in politically sensitive cases where chief ministers and state cabinet ministers have been found to be involved. Union governments have often used the threat of the CBI to get state leaders to fall in line, especially when they enjoy a full majority in Parliament. However, what sometimes goes unsaid is that the popularity of the CBI can be partly attributed to the dysfunction among the state police across the nation. State governments and the parties that complain of union interference through the CBI would be well advised to look within and wonder why courts are handing over an increasing number of high-profile cases to the CBI and the National Investigation Agency.

The cause for the CBI’s current state is also emblematic of the larger dysfunction of the police force across India—ill-equipped, understaffed and enjoying little or no independence. The CBI has no independent cadre of officers to staff it and it depends on police officers from state cadres to serve on deputation. It is still woefully lacking in the necessary forensic capabilities and subject matter expertise required to crack the kinds of cases that are referred to it.

That there is a need for a dedicated agency to impartially investigate corruption at the highest levels and tackle high-profile, interstate, cross-border or politically sensitive cases is beyond dispute. The CBI’s record on all these matters has been patchy, at best. The acquittal of all the accused in the high-profile 2G scam should have prompted much soul-searching and inquiry into what went wrong. Especially since the investigation was monitored by the Supreme Court itself and contributed significantly to the electoral loss of the then union government. The suicide of the Bansal family allegedly due to the harassment by CBI officers should have sounded alarm bells within the organisation. Yet, no significant steps were taken to remedy the situation.

There is no “fixing” the CBI as it exists. Alok Verma is the third director of the CBI in recent times to be under a cloud over allegations of having influenced investigations. The Supreme Court’s attempt at impartially and dispassionately deciding the legality of Verma’s suspension by the union government has been hijacked by the sensational allegations against the union government and its officials, and the parallel media trial in the matter. Whatever the Supreme Court decides in the petition filed by Verma, it is not going to be able to restore public confidence or internal morale within the organisation. It is also not capable of suggesting and following through on the institutional reforms necessary to get the CBI to function as intended.

In this crisis lies an opportunity to create a better investigative agency, one that can be trusted to function in a competent and constitutional manner; one that works free of political interference and is bound only by a strong law to govern its functioning; one that inspires confidence in its abilities and impartiality to investigate and prosecute high profile offences. We can only hope that the political class does not miss this opportunity.

Updated On : 26th Nov, 2018

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