Remember the insane Monty Python sketch ‘Dead Parrot’ in which a customer tries to convince the pet shop owner that the parrot he just bought is dead? Something similar is going on in India’s premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation. Funnily, CBI was actually chastised for being a ‘caged parrot’ just five years ago by no less than the Supreme Court.
In October 2017, the Narendra Modi government brought in their favourite Gujarat cadre officer Rakesh Asthana as the no.2 man in the CBI. He was tipped for taking the top slot later. But Asthana fell out with another political appointee, Alok Verma, the director. Both have been accusing each other of nothing less than corruption – which is what the CBI is supposed to be fighting. And corruption at this level does not involve some miserly fistful of rupees. Verma says Asthana had taken Rs.3 crore as bribe to take the pressure off from a meat exporter being investigated. Being the director, Verma not only got an FIR filed against Asthana but put it up on the official website thus carrying the war into the world’s gaze. A team of CBI sleuths arrested another officer, supposed to be Asthana’s crony, from his office inside the CBI headquarters in Delhi. Meanwhile, Asthana has alleged that it is Verma who has been taking bribes and he (Asthana) has complained about this to others.
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This open war at the top, with shadowy political puppeteers in the wings, has confirmed what many suspected for long: that the protectors and upholders of law have become so compromised and the system so rotten that nobody can possibly believe in them anymore. It was inevitable, but it took a long time coming. The Modi government’s ham-handed preference for appointing only the most loyal and time-tested officers in key posts, irrespective of rules and such other niceties, has ensured that the thing blew up in this spectacularly dramatic fashion.
The CBI came into being in 1963, although it was preceded by a similar body, the Special Police Establishment set up by the British in 1941 to investigate war profiteering. Besides investigating bribery and corruption, the CBI was also mandated to look into serious crimes and financial law violations. It is technically under the Department of Personnel and Training (Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions) the but its director is appointed by a three-member committee headed by the Prime Minister and having the leader of the single largest party in Parliament and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (or a representative who has to be a sitting Supreme Court judge) as its other members. The Modi government has amended the law so that presence of all three members is not necessary for a valid decision on appointment.
Right from the early 1970s, the stranglehold of the Central government was established on the CBI. In 1971, D.Sen was appointed director by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and his term was extended till 1977 by an executive order. Later, the Shah Commission, which investigated the excesses committed during Emergency, severely criticised Sen for his abuse of power during 1975-77.
Since then, under successive governments and changing directors, the CBI has come in for increasing adverse comments from courts and public opinion. The charges range from political partisanship – favouring some, cracking down on others – going slow on key cases, even messing up investigations.
The well-known cases in which the CBI has come under a shadow include the Bofors investigation, the Jain hawala case, the Bhopal Gas Disaster case, Harshad Mehta case, HDW Submarine, the Airbus 320, Czech Pistol, Nusli Wadia, St Kitts, Chandraswamy, Lakhu Bhai Pathak, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Mumbai Port Trust, the 2G scam, the coal block allocation scam, and so on.
It is not just that the CBI has been used for settling cases in an illegal way. There have been allegations that a much more prevalent and potent use of the CBI has been to intimidate and cow down political opponents. This too started in the Congress era but seems to have acquired a wholly new life under the Modi government.
Carrying out raids on susceptible opponents, often with the help of other legal agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Income Tax Department, and even the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) have become commonplace. This, of course, entails complaints of malfeasance of some kind, but the calibration of response is what the game is all about. If you fall in line, the pressure is eased. If you don’t, the pressure is gassed up.
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It is something very much like what Asthana is being charged with, except in political cases, it is not money but political support that’s the desired objective. Often, as in the case of Lalu Yadav, existence of malfeasance is turned into a comprehensive destruction of the person’s political life. There have been allegations that Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati and Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh were also pressured through threats of CBI cases, though it is impossible to tell at present. The targeting of P. Chidambram’s son is also mentioned as a similar case.
In several cases, such as the State of West Bengal vs Anwar Ali Sarkar, Ram Krishna Dalmiya vs Justice SR Tendolkar, etc. the Supreme Court has criticised the excessive concentration of executive power and its use for such purposes. Conversely, the court has also castigated the CBI for not doing its duty on several occasions, the most famous one being the coal block allocation case.
There have been demands that the legal status of CBI be consolidated and separately defined with complete autonomy. So much so, in 2013, the Gauhati High Court had even declared the body unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, however, saved its existence. Back in 1978, the LP Singh Committee had made wide-ranging recommendations to improve the functioning of CBI but these remained on paper. Similar was the fate of the recommendations of Parliament Estimates Committee of 1991-92.
Far from becoming more accountable over the years, the CBI has been purposely protected from scrutiny. This is most evident in the fact that it was expressly taken out of the RTI Act’s ambit, on grounds of national security.
Since the Modi government has failed to bring in the Lokpal law which would have covered officers of the CBI too, there is virtually no accountability for them. Mix this with political patronage and you have a deadly cocktail that’s bound to go to the head of these top brass. That’s why two of its recent directors – Ranjit Sinha and AP Singh – are under investigation on corruption charges. A recent report had revealed that as many as 26 CBI officers were facing corruption charges.
Now, with the Asthana-Verma blowout, the rot seems to go right to the top. And strangely, both officers were reported to be shuttling to and from the PMO in the past few days. They know where the power lies. Meanwhile, the agency they lead is a dead parrot.