Alok Verma-Rakesh Asthana feud highlights need to free CBI from political interference, reform agency

Gair Mumkin Hai Ki Halat Ki Gutthi Suljhe
Ahle Danish Ne Bahut Soch Kar Uljhai Hai

(It is impossible to get out of this swamp we have fallen in; the wise people have created these conditions after careful consideration).

This Urdu couplet was once used by ace investigator BR Lall to quite aptly describe the rot within the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an agency which, he said, deals differently with people in power, people not in power and people out of favour. Lall, former joint director, was shunted out of the CBI in 1996 for his persistence in probing the prime minister's role in the Jain hawala case. He later wrote a book, “Who owns CBI?” in 2007, unraveling shocking details of a cover-up in big-ticket corruption cases and harassment of honest officers in the agency who want to do their job with complete integrity.

“The investigating officers are not supposed to cross the path of the elite. No wonder that during the last sixty years, no action has ever been taken against any higher-ups despite rampant corruption…even the honest investigating officers keep weighing the political fallout and the political and administrative consequences, rather than the merits of a case before taking any action…I discovered that in the CBI, naked uncovering of facts was neither acceptable, nor would it be tolerated beyond certain limits. The unwritten rule was that certain persons were not to be touched and if the line of investigation reached them, the probe should be diluted, diverted or dropped and scuttled in due course,” he wrote.

Representational image. AFP

The CBI logo. Representational image. AFP

I met him on several occasions and each time, he would narrate some nuggets, providing me a glimpse into the CBI’s sanctum sanctorum and how people at the helm of affairs were busy pleasing the political masters. Lall, who is no more, always maintained that the agency has excellent officers but they are told not to enter into forbidden territories. That means despite the requisite skills, the CBI never fought corruption at high places. After the Jain hawala fiasco, the Alok Verma-Rakesh Asthana feud would be the second incident where corruption and a cover-up within the agency has been dragged and vigorously debated in the public domain. The Central Vigilance Commission's (CVC) probe into allegations against Verma is likely to be submitted to the Supreme Court on Monday, but the ripple effect of the tussle between the two top officers will be felt for months and years to come. In the ongoing conflict involving officials from different agencies, the fearless investigators are perplexed over the public spectacle of mudslinging. The question is not about who is honest, but who is less corrupt.

One of the most puzzling problems the CBI is going to face is, what will happen to those found guilty? Are they going to be punished? Government sources insist that the officers will be thrown out. Irrespective of the outcome, it is a doomsday scenario for the agency, which had been created to tackle the web of corruption. Ongoing events have cast a shadow over the cases it is investigating. An officer said that after the first chargesheet in the Aircel-Maxis case, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which sent four reminders to the CBI seeking details into Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) approval, kept waiting for a reply for almost a year.

“There is a serious doubt that it was delayed deliberately because high-profile people are involved in it. When it comes to the powerful and corrupt, investigations into cases appear to be open for manipulation,” the officer said, adding that the very frequently used statement that the central government does not interfere in the investigation of cases carried out by the CBI is merely a deception.

The agency has never analysed the conviction rate in corruption cases, but the details show that it is far from satisfactory. In 2008, the conviction rate was 66.2 percent, while in 2017, it was 66.8 percent. A total of 299 cases have been ordered by the Supreme Court for investigation since 2015, but chargesheets have been filed in only 107 cases, and just 3 cases resulted in conviction. There is no doubt that a majority of officers — more than 4,000 of executive ranks and 270 law officers — do their job diligently to ensure that people who have indulged in corruption are convicted. However, this mainly happens in cases which do not have political implications. For example, in 2017, while a total of 741 persons were convicted in corruption cases, 755 were acquitted due to lack of evidence or tardy investigation. Approximately 569 corruption cases have been pending for more than two years, despite the fact that the government has set up 46 courts of special judges, 92 additional special courts and ten courts of special magistrates exclusively for the trial of CBI cases all over the country. Further, no one seems to know the status of 45 VVIP cases involving ministers and MPs that were opened up in 2011.

The CBI argues that in some cases, investigation requires scrutiny of voluminous documents and examination of a large number of witnesses and hence, delays take place. However, the justification appears to be delusional. It is the top boss who decides the course of investigation and people to be named. In the animal husbandry scam case, the then CBI director Joginder Singh had rubbished the report filed by the joint director UN Biswas and deleted Lalu Prasad Yadav’s name. In the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha case, the investigating officer was transferred after he refused to toe the line. The cases of Bofors, Bhopal gas tragedy, UTI, petrol pump allotment, Taj corridor and Mulayam Singh's disproportionate assets met the similar fate. Even in the 2G scam, the judgment pointed out that the agency, which started the case with great enthusiasm and ardour, subsequently became highly cautious and guarded, making it difficult to find out as to what the prosecution wanted to prove.

The list of suspected manipulation on the direction of top bosses due to political interference is never-ending. What happens to the Verma-Asthana feud doesn’t matter as much as what the government plans to do with a prestigious investigation agency at the forefront of the fight against corruption. If the government is willing to have a strong and effective anti-corruption unit, the time is ripe for massive reform by placing it under a constitutional head instead of the CVC's superintendence. Such reforms can prevent a future calamity with respect to the agency.

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Updated Date: Nov 11, 2018 16:59:03 IST

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