CBI autonomy: Why the 'caged parrot' can't be 'half-free'

After the severe tongue-lashing that the Supreme Court gave the Central Bureau of Investigation last month, noting that the investigating agency was conducting itself like a "caged parrot" that was echoing its master's sentiments to a nicety, the heat has been on the UPA government, the "master" in this case, to unfetter the bird.

Late on Thursday, ahead of the upcoming hearing in the Supreme Court to determine precisely what the goverrnment has done in the matter, the Cabinet approved a Group of Ministers proposal to give the CBI a lot more freedom, but fell well short of the "autonomy" that critically determines how free and fair the agency's investigations will be.

Some of these proposals - such as the one to sent up a collegium to appoint the agency's director and an oversight panel to ensure impartiality of investigations - go some way towards addressing long-pending demands aimed at ensuring that the CBI is not constantly looking over its shoulders at the political masters in the conduct of investigations that willy-nilly have a political edge to them.

CBI director Ranjit Sinha. AFP

CBI director Ranjit Sinha. AFP

For instance the proposed collegium will be made up of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Chief Justice of India. And the oversight panel, it has been suggested, will be made up of three retired judges.

Another proposal, which was approved on Thursday, relates to enhanced financial powers of the agency's director. Yet another introduces a new procedure for the appointment of the Director (Prosecution), who has thus far been an appointee of the Law Ministry.   Any case is only as good as the prosecution wants it to be, and the Ministry has in the past been accused of using that power to direct the fate of politically sensitive cases to the advantage of the ruling dispensation.

But all these fall well short of the idea of full functional autonomy for the CBI, free of total government interference in the conduct of investigations, particularly those that cast a shadow on the political domain. In other words, the government is signalling to the Supreme Court that the parrot's cage will be unlocked, but the bird itself will remain tethered.

In any case, given the manner in which former CBI officials, including former Directors, have allowed themselves to be rewarded with post-retirement "jobs-for-the-boys" appointments, and the egregious manner in which the UPA government has wilfully used such patronage systems to "reward" pliant officers and trace the arc of investigations in corruption cases against Opposition leaders to its political advantage,  there is more to all this than meets the eye.

It is worth recalling that the Supreme Court's rap on the CBI Director's knuckles came in the context of the blatant attempt by the then Law Minister Ashwani Kumar to vet and edit the draft status report of the CBI in the CoalGate scam investigation, evidently to ring-fence Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from the scandal.

The coal block allocations were made when Manmohan Singh headed the Coal Ministry, and have been shown to have been made without sufficient application of mind and, presumably, on corrupt considerations. There is no direct evidence implicating Manmohan Singh (other than the fact that he was the Coal Minister at that time, and bears moral responsibility for his Ministry's actions), but the manner in which Ashwani Kumar and bureaucrats from the Prime Minister's Office sought to change the soul of the CBI's report pointed to a cover-up that is rather more damaging.

The government will likely seek to make the case that the proposals it has promised to put in place will go a long way towards achieving the functional independence that the Supreme Court suggested was required.  But in the final analysis, that proposition will have to pass the 'smell test'. The government must be judged by its actions, not on its promises of fair conduct. Particularly given the UPA government's record of compromising,  disempowering and politicising virtually every institution, including Constitutional arrangements, the bar of  credibility must be set rather high.

And although the proposals that the Group of Ministers outlined are certainly half a step forward, they don't wholly insulate the CBI from the effects of political coercion or enticements to which CBI officials have in the past proved susceptible.

As with many things in life, half-way measures may not accomplish much. Either the parrot is caged or it is free. To claim that it is "half-free" is just pious baloney.

Updated Date: Jun 28, 2013 06:57 AM

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