IRONY was writ large when the government took the unprecedented midnight step of sending the CBI director and his Number 2 on leave just two days before the annual ritual of Central Vigilance Awareness Week was to kick off on October 26. Irony was confounded—the theme of this year’s observance by the apex vigilance watchdog being “Eradicating corruption—building a new India”. The agony of the irony was rubbed in further when the spouse of the officer chosen to hold interim charge of CBI was accused of unsavory dealings with a businessman in Kolkata, where he had been posted in an earlier incarnation.
The current spat in CBI and the consequential brouhaha has come less than a year prior to the 2019 general election. The government’s credibility, authority and probity couldn’t have been called to question at a worse time. And that too because the USP of the Modi regime has been that it has been able to curb graft in high places. Despite the Rafale allegations by Congress, not all political parties are on the same page as Rahul Gandhi. Most importantly, there is no “Quattrochhi factor” stung to this regime. Attention is riveted to the PIL filed on Rafale before the Supreme Court; the outcome of this litigation will also have its impact on the government’s decision making and governance ability.
The image of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-2 regime had been sullied in 2013,a year before the general election, when the then CBI director Ranjit Sinha insinuated government interference in the agency’s work and thereafter the Supreme Court decided to put a chastity belt on the agency, keeping the keys with itself. Justice RM Lodha described CBI as a “caged parrot” and “its master’s voice” in May 2013 during the hearing on the Coalgate scam. Ironically, Sinha himself later was wrapped up in an investigation supervised by the Supreme Court when allegations were levelled against him. Sinha’s predecessor, AP Singh, too had been under a cloud with allegations of abuse of power.
Started by the British in 1941 as Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE) to curb corruption in the government’s wartime purchases primarily, post-independence the organisation rechristened as Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) in April 1963 is India’s parallel to the American Federal Bureau of Investigton (FBI).The US organisation was primarily launched to fight communists in the Cold War era. It slowly evolved into an anti-crime outfit and now handles matters including threat of terrorism. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel wanted to root out corruption. Thus DSPE became an anti-corruption outfit. It is entrusted with crime investigation as well. The founding director of CBI, DP Kohli, who headed the organisation till 1968, had given a talisman to his colleagues: “The public expects the highest standard from you both in efficiency and integrity. The motto of CBI—Industry, Impartiality and Integrity—these values must always guide your work.”
Five decades later, Kohli’s words may sound somewhat farcical: in a statement placed before Parliament sometime back, Minister of State in PMO Jitendra Singh had stated that 16 senior CBI officers were being probed for corruption. That perhaps was the tip of the iceberg. The Verma-Asthana imbroglio has brought the entire iceberg to the surface. Eminent journalist Mark Tully in a recent column has cited Socrates and his quotation in Greek: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies” (Who will guard the guardians themselves).This citation brings to relief the antiquity of the malaise—since the days of Socrates some guardians of law have been predators of law themselves.
THE infighting between Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana had been hitting newspaper headlines when the two officers accused each other of wrongdoing in their respective missives to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), which has superintendence over CBI in matters of public corruption. Matters came to a head when an FIR was registered against Special Director Asthana, in which mention by name was made of a senior officer of the external intelligence agency, Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), Samant Kumar Goel, an IPS batchmate of Asthana.
RAW usually is a faceless organisation. It was nameless too in its initial years of existence under the dynamic and pioneering leadership of RN Kao. The yeoman role of RAW in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 and many strategic operations carried out by the agency over the years can never be recorded in the annals of India’s official history. Hence the mention by name and designation of a RAW officer in an FIR perhaps acted as the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. It is said that the Secretary (R) of Cabinet Secretariat—as the Director of RAW is referred to in officialese—protested to the National Security Advisor and that set in motion the process of sending both the skirmishing officers on leave. Spat in the CBI adversely affected India’s strategic and security establishment as well.
Credibility of CBI has reached its nadir. Anti-graft plank having been Narendra Modi’s acme, the adrift boat has to be put back in order. For this the government, the Supreme Court and the CVC have to frame guidelines for the selection process, perhaps engulfing the promotion policy of original CBI cadre. Of late, officers appointed to apex positions in CBI are brought in laterally. Longer experience in CBI with impeccable integrity should override other considerations.
Apart from CBI, the autonomy of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) too has been subject of public interest. In both CBI and RBI it must be remembered that the last letter ‘I’ stands for India and should not be misunderstood as “be I” (individual idiosyncrasy) of the appointees. The elected government is the best judge of the prevailing desideratum. The selection process should be such that probity and integrity gets priority and the regime’s credibility is shielded.
The writer is former Editor Sunday