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CAGED PARROT IN THE DOCK
Much has been written about the Supreme Court's decisions in the PILs on 2G licences and Coal allocations that have dealt a body blow to crony capitalism by mandating the wholesale cancellation of telecom licences and coal block allocations granted by the central government in violation of the Constitutional principles of equity and custodianship of national resources. These decisions have also forced the government to adopt more objective and equitable criteria and procedures for attribution to private entities seeking to maximise their profit.
Perhaps an equally significant outcome of these civil society initiatives is the sharp focus on the rot within the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the dysfunctiionality of the system of its superintendence. Hopefully, the ongoing judicial scrutiny of the deficiencies in the functioning of the CBI will lead to a long overdue systemic reform of the agency which has been assigned a key role in the national anti-corruption framework. Despite its poor track record of bending to the will of the government of the day, the public has, for better or worse, reposed implicit faith in the CBI for the investigation of sensitive cases. It is high time that concerted efforts are made to restore the agency's lost credibility.
The tenure of Ranjit Sinha as Director of the CBI has contributed the most to the erosion of its credibility and reputation. He tried to extract the maximum mileage out of the `caged parrot' metaphor employed by the Supreme Court with reference to the CBI's relationship with the central government and assiduously projected the image of an institution striving to assert its independence from an overbearing political executive. Nevertheless, the agency on his watch demonstrated an unusual docility and willingness to serve causes other than justice and rule of law. But for the alacrity of civil society, commitment of investigators and prosecutors, and close monitoring and prodding by the Court, the investigations in the 2G and Coal Allocation cases would not have made any headway.
It is on record that Sinha willingly submitted to political interference even in Court-monitored investigations and let the Law Minister vet a status report intended solely for the Supreme Court. Unmindful of the dignity of his office, he hobnobbed with individuals being investigated for various offences and allowed them free access to his residence. His determined efforts to throw out inconvenient officers from the investigation teams and derail from within the investigation of cases against certain influential entities invited a sharp rebuke from the Court.
At the instance of Common Cause, the closure reports filed by the CBI in a large number of preliminary enquiries related to coal allocations were referred to the Central Vigilance Commission for review and the CVC found that in many of these cases the CBI Headquarters had unjustifiably overruled the investigation officers' recommendations for registration of cases for further investigation.
Confronted with damaging revelations of his various misdemeanours by the lead petitioners, Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) and Common Cause, Sinha tried to brazen his way out by issuing a succession of mutually contradictory denials. He went on to accuse an uncompromising officer of the rank of Deputy Inspector General, whom he had ousted from the investigation team, of leaking sensitive information to the petitioners' counsel, only to retract the accusation in the face of an affirmation on affidavit by the petitioners' counsel denying any contact with the officer and an indignant rebuttal from the agency's own counsel. As a last resort, he sought to intimidate the petitioners and their counsel with perjury proceedings.
On an application moved by CPIL, the Bench headed by Chief Justice H.L. Dattu in an unprecedented order passed less than two weeks before Sinha's retirement directed him to keep away from the investigation into the 2G spectrum cases. The Court, having regard to the facts and circumstances brought to its notice by the Special Public Prosecutor in 2G cases, recalled its earlier order to CPIL to reveal the identity of the anonymous source that had supplied the documents on which the allegations against the CBI Director were founded. The Director's order for the removal of the said investigation officer despite the Court's prohibition against any change in the investigation team was likewise reversed.
In the light of the Special Public Prosecutor's report, the Court found the charges levelled by CPIL to be `prima facie credible', but refrained from pronouncing a detailed order in the interest of protecting the agency's reputation. With due respect to the Hon'ble Chief Justice of India, we do not feel that such reticence was called for. It is our considered view that the interests of the nation's premier investigation agency would have been best served by a full disclosure of its serial shenanigans in the conduct of investigations in high profile cases under Sinha's stewardship. Sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant. A full disclosure of the agency's deliberate transgressions and egregious lapses in the conduct of these investigations, which were under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court, would have provided the required impetus to a flagging campaign for a radical reform of the CBI.
It will be pertinent to observe here that the systemic decline of the agency, which began with its blatant misuse by successive central governments for furthering their political objectives, gathered momentum since the UPA government's decision three years ago to grant full exemption to the agency from the purview of the Right to Information Act. Interestingly, the CBI had initially sought a partial exemption from the RTI in respect of its intelligence gathering unit. In its subsequent proposal, the agency had volunteered to keep the departments dealing with administration, personnel, accounts/finance, budget and training within the ambit of the RTI Act. An oversolicitous central government, however, found it expedient to accord full exemption. Obviously, total opacity was considered as more conducive to the manipulation of the agency for political ends.
Be that as it may, the central government and Parliament now have a historic opportunity to rethink the CBI's statutory framework, functional autonomy, accountability and superintendence. The procedure for the CBI Director's appointment envisaged in the Lokpal Act also needs to be operationalised without further delay. But, in the ultimate analysis, it is the moral fibre and professionalism of the people chosen to man the top echelons of an institution that form its soul and substance.