Chandrababu Naidu, Mamata Banerjee's action against CBI shows Centre has impinged greatly on federal principles

Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu has withdrawn the ‘general’ consent given by his government to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to undertake operations in his state. Since law and order is a state subject, it appears it is well within his jurisdiction to revoke permission. What applies to the CBI also seems to apply to other investigating agencies under the control of the central government.

This means that under the provisions of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946, which governs the CBI’s functioning, the investigating agency will have to seek permission from the state government every time it wants to undertake an operation, including searches and seizures, unless it arms itself with an order from a high court or the Supreme Court. Existing probes will also not be affected.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is singing from the same hymn sheet. Though she has backed Naidu’s decision, the position, as far as her government and state are concerned, seems to be somewhat unclear. Some reports suggest that Bengal has already followed Naidu in shutting the CBI out, while others say that Banerjee’s government is exploring legal options. It has also been suggested that Bengal stopped issuing the required ‘general’ consent in 1989, which could mean that Banerjee may now use its powers more stringently to block the CBI.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

In effect, the outcome will be the same – the CBI and other agencies will not have a free investigative run in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. This will obviously affect interstate probes or those that require multi-agency cooperation and the resources that the central agencies alone command. This is pretty bad news for law-enforcement in a general sense.

But the issues underlying this situation are possibly graver. With the precedent, already set, being reinforced in this manner, it will now be open to any state government to deny or withdraw permission to the CBI and others whenever it chooses to, especially when it has political problems with the party or alliance in power in Delhi.

This has the potential in itself of proving to be an obstacle in the smooth functioning of the federal order. And, of course, there are no guarantees that this issue will remain confined to the arena of law enforcement. In fact, the kind of rhetoric that has already begun to fly around is suggestive of an overheated polity in which there is a strong possibility that some kind of escalation will occur.

The critical question is: Who is to blame for the current contretemps? It is necessary to answer this question, not just for the academic satisfaction of apportioning responsibility, but also because the answer might show the political class how to resolve the mess. Naidu and Banerjee have made two substantive points: first, the CBI had been converted into a tool of political blackmail by the regime headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi; and, second, the CBI had lost all credibility as an investigating agency following the well-publicised battle between its two top officers, which has landed up for adjudication in the Supreme Court. They may well have added that the central government’s insalubrious conduct in trying to contain the damage only made matters worse.

The BJP’s position was articulated by GVL Narasimha Rao, who opined that the recent happenings within the CBI had been used as a "ruse to brazenly save the corrupt and extend political patronage to people and organisations involved in acts of corruption". So, which position is more reflective of the reality of the current political situation?

To begin with, it has to be noted that Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party was a member of the National Democratic Alliance, in other words a BJP coalition partner, till nine moths ago, almost to the day. That is to say, the central government run by the BJP found no reason to probe their allies or the ‘friends’ of their allies for its first four years in government. It was only when Naidu left the alliance did the government suddenly feel the need to initiate wide-ranging investigations. Rao’s self-righteous rhetoric stands exposed immediately, therefore, for what it is: a self-serving, and risible, attempt to promote his party as the keeper of the flame.

This could have held some water if the BJP government in Delhi had made some kind of effort to investigate those accused of corruption in the Rafale case. Without a smidgen of doubt, a prima facie case existed for an inquiry both by the CBI and under the auspices of a joint parliamentary committee. Neither was conceded. The conclusion that the soi disant warriors against corruption have sack loads to hide is not difficult to reach. The same applies to the sudden decision on part of the Union government to reveal the pricing aspects of the deal secretly to the Supreme Court to avoid having to make a full public disclosure.

In view of these and much more, the charge of political blackmail and of using the CBI to pursue partisan political and, especially, electoral ends implied by Naidu and Banerjee can hardly be brushed aside.

It is true that the Modi government has consistently used the CBI and other investigative agencies to undermine political opponents. It can hardly be said that the BJP invented this strategy. Practically every government in Delhi has been guilty of doing pretty much the same thing.

There is, however, a matter of degree. The BJP has been doing this with an unvarying consistency for the past four-and-a-half years. It has taken the art of political vendetta and the use of government agencies for the party’s political and electoral objectives to a different level, which changes the qualitative character of these strategies.

Read this alongside the Modi government’s relentless subversion of all manner of institutions and what you have on your plate is a mess in which a federal system cannot function smoothly. In fact, there is every reason to believe that if the next government, to be elected next year, continues to run the course set by the current dispensation, forget federalism, constitutional democracy itself could be critically compromised.

Thus, if we have to assign blame, a huge chunk will have to be borne by the BJP and the Modi government. Naidu and Banerjee may have embarked on a course of action fraught with dangerous possibilities, but there can be no denying that they were almost forced to seek desperate remedies. That having been said, it is now necessary to recalibrate procedures to resolve the current situation. Consensus will have to play a major role in bringing about serious change. The old demand for making the CBI (and other agencies) autonomous to free it of partisan control is also worth seriously considering.

Given the realities of India’s fractured and broken political system, and the fact that the central government is run by a party that values self-aggrandisement above everything else, you’d be well advised, however, not to hold your breath waiting for substantive change.

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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2018 20:14:56 IST

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