Which master’s voice?


By Poonam I Kaushish

It was an unprecedented midnight coup when in the stealth of night 1am CBI Director Alok Verma was replaced by Joint Director Nageshwara Rao. All over an ugly no-holds-barred public battle royale between Verma and Special Director Asthana, both accusing each other of corruption culminating in both being sent on leave. Both moved courts, Verma Supreme Court challenging his removal and Asthana Delhi High Court, seeking quashing of the FIR CBI lodged against him on Verma’s directions in meat exporter Moin Qureshi bribery case. Resulting in the Supreme Court ordering the CVC to complete its inquiry within 10 days and barring Rao from taking any policy decision. The last word has still to be said.
Undeniably, the ongoing developments at the investigative agency have reduced it to a mockery and stands testimony to failure at many levels fraught with more skeletons tumbling out of the closet. Indeed, this fracas could have been avoided and prevented by Verma, Asthana and other senior officers sitting together to sort things out. Failing this, CVC or Prime Minister’s Office should have tried to solve the problems rather than reducing it to a farcical situation.
Alas, this is not the first time, nor will it be the last. Over the years the agency’s fatal attraction for hit-ins, clean chits, political cover-ups and fool proof surety for law enforcers to become law breakers has earned it two ignominious nicknames: Central Bureau of corruption, connivance and convenience.
Witness the sweet irony. As the Opposition cries foul accusing the Modi-Shah duo of compromising the credibility and destroying it, Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister had lambasted the CBI for being biased and targeting the people of Gujarat. “Why are we being treated like an enemy State?” he had queried. Today the boot is on the other foot. As Prime Minister he is being accused of selective targeting of political opponents. What to speak of making a mockery of his procrastinations of the agency’s so-called ‘autonomy’, and ‘independence’. Sic.
Unsurprisingly, it raises doubts about the CBI’s honesty and integrity of purpose to weed out the corrupt. Raising a moot point: Is the agency more sinned against than sinning? Are politicians the main culprit? Is the pot calling the kettle black?
The truth is mid-way. Both work in tandem in furthering their own interest. As Verma succinctly underscored, “All influence exerted by the political class is not found ‘explicitly or in writing’. More often than not, it is tacit and requires considerable courage to withstand.”
Regrettably, as oft happens, our netagan continue in legitimizing crime and corruption. Such is the nasha of power that all conveniently choose to merrily make political capital. Consequently, the system becomes self-perpetuating. Over the years, the threatened political elite have given more and more powers to the CBI to get their way and have their say.
Two cases in point. BJP Karnataka strongman Yeddyurappa is convicted by Karnataka’s Lokayukta for favouring mining companies in return for gratification and quits as Chief Minister in 2011. Today with BJP at the Centre, a special CBI court has acquitted him. Also, the blatant manipulations and political twists and turns against former UP Chief Ministers Mayawati and Mulayam Singh in their disproportionate assets cases. Which are dictated by political expediency.
The Congress too was no better. In fact, it flagrantly used and abused the agency to serve its political ends earning the ignominious title of a “caged parrot” vis-à-vis the coal scam in 2013, the way it handled the Bofors scandal which was scuttled. At the end nobody was any wiser where the Rs 64 crores went. Never mind it cost the late Rajiv Gandhi his Prime Ministership.
More. There are as many as 1,300 cases pending against MPs and MLAs in various courts. These include cases being on-off investigated by CBI. Thereby, sullying the agency’s reputation, replete with its “failure” to back up charges with required evidence. Worse, the CBI seems to have adopted a brazenly opportunistic policy of playing safe with Governments of the day and its willingness and commitment to serve the national cause by putting self before the country.
The crux of the issue: Who should control the CBI? Needless to say, a Catch-22 question for our power-greedy polity to honestly answer and for us to stupidly expect. As political manipulation and internal sabotage are twin challenges that have dogged the CBI throughout. Recall, Indira Gandhi, was the first to concentrate all instruments of effective power in her hands.
All subsequent Prime Ministers happily followed the tradition, notwithstanding ad nauseum crying foul about the agency’s misuse and tall talk of weeding out corruption and paying lip service to making the CBI autonomous and independent. But once in power at the Centre, they turn defensive about charges of interfering in the agency’s functioning and unleashing the CBI on political rivals has been a standard practice in Indian politics for years now.
According to former CBI directors and top officials, there is no such thing as autonomy. This is a fallacy. No government body is independent. Despite the Apex Court’s 1997 Vineet Narain judgment on the hawala scam relating to probe of allegations of corruption against top politicians and bureaucrats which led to amendments in the Central Vigilance Commission Act 2003 and the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act.
For three reasons. One the agency is directly under the Prime Minister. Two, under Section 389 of the CrPC only the Executive has the power to decide if the CBI should appeal any case. Three, officers are dependant on their political bosses for their careers going north or south. If they “perform” they are rewarded! See how an ex-CBI chief was made member of the Human Rights Commission post retirement.
What next? Prime Minister Modi has oft spoken about ushering in transparency in governance. It is high time the CBI is truly independent, stops being His Masters Voice and prevents abuse of power. Undoubtedly this would be a formidable task given that the agency needs purging of “yes men” and cleansed of backdoor instructions. There is no point in initiating a biased investigation which does not guarantee a fair probe.
One way in line with international best practices, is for the CBI to develop its own dedicated cadre of officers who are not bothered about deputation and abrupt transfers. The CBI did recruit some officers in the past to its cadre, but that effort has gone nowhere, and all senior posts in the CBI are now held by IPS officers.
It is also possible to consider granting the CBI the kind of autonomy that the Comptroller and Auditor General enjoys, he is only accountable to Parliament. An efficient Parliamentary oversight over federal criminal and intelligence agencies could be a way forward to ensure better accountability, despite concerns regarding political misuse of the oversight.
As things stand the dice is loaded against autonomy. Clearly, the CBI drama reflects the emerging truth of Modi’s India. Power is all. Arguably, one can say this is what democracy is all about. Or should one say business of democracy. Either which way the CBI must stop being His Masters Voice and prevent abuse of power.
At the end of the day, the powers-that-be must desist from playing havoc with the CBI. It would be Utopian to accept CBI as a free parrot. Time Government launches a clean-up operation before it’s too late. They need to answer two pointed questions: Will the CBI be guided by the law of the land only or by the Government of the day? The buck stops at Modi’s door. Will he rise to the occasion? —- INFA