Mamata vs CBI drama could've been averted if Centre had been mindful of federal, political sensibilities

The unseemly circumstances surrounding what we may call the aborted raid by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the residence of Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar shines a powerful light on how far federal, indeed constitutional and political, conventions have been battered under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s watch.

Before we can even begin to arrive at a determination of who or what is responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs, in the context of Sunday’s events, we need to sort out some questions of jurisdiction and convention. But the facts first would be a good way to proceed.

On Sunday evening, a team of seven CBI officers, later joined by a further 40-odd (a bit of an overkill if ever there was one), arrived at Kumar’s official residence to interrogate him about some documents relating to the Saradha Ponzi scheme investigation, which they felt ought to have been on their files. There seems to be a mere presumption that Kumar shredded them.

The CBI justified this raid on the pretext that they had issued two notices to Kumar, who was in charge of the investigation into the Saradha scam as the head of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the West Bengal government, before the case was handed over to it by an order of the Supreme Court. Before and after the aborted raid, the CBI also said that Kumar faced arrest since he was a ‘suspect’ in the case. In addition, the CBI had claimed on Saturday that he was absconding and was ‘being looked for’.

 Mamata vs CBI drama couldve been averted if Centre had been mindful of federal, political sensibilities

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee at the dharna site on Sunday evening. PTI

The state government, through its home secretary and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, however, clarified that he had been attending office all along, with the sole exception of 31 January, when he had taken casual leave for personal reasons. That fact had, in fact, already been established in connection with Kumar’s absence from a meeting scheduled by the Election Commission, which had prompted a somewhat disgruntled Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora to seek an explanation. The explanation tendered was the one provided above – that he had been on leave – along with apologies from both Mamata and the home secretary.

After the 40-member CBI team reached Kumar’s residence what ensued was basically a fracas. Kolkata Police personnel reached the spot and asked the CBI team whether they had the documents needed to question Kumar. According to some reports, a few members of the CBI team were bundled into a vehicle and taken to a police station. According to others, the were taken there to sort out the problem that had been created. At any rate, none of the CBI officers seem to have been detained.

But later, Kolkata Police personnel surrounded two complexes housing the CBI offices. A senior CBI officer alleged that he had been detained, with police personnel posted outside his house. The Kolkata Police personnel vacated the CBI office complex after central forces arrived. Mamata, then, staged a sit-in at a spot in central Kolkata designated for such protests, saying that the CBI action had stifled the spirit of the Constitution and of the federal principle. Several opposition leaders, too, decried the CBI raid, making much the same point.

Much of this could have been avoided, if only the Centre – in point of fact, the minders of the CBI – had kept in mind federal and political sensibilities, instead of insisting on matters of rights and jurisdictions. In other words, if the Department of Personnel and Training had cautioned the CBI brass to consult the state establishment, in this case, the West Bengal home department, matters could have been smoothed over.

In fact, in July 2018, the Supreme Court had made deprecatory observations on being told that the Bengal SIT was obstructing the investigations of the CBI, but had also said that if it went into the records of the allegations of the two agencies it would leave a ‘bitter taste’ and had urged them to work ‘in tandem’. If Kumar is held guilty of being uncooperative, the CBI’s approach can hardly be held to be a model of reciprocality either.

Take, to begin with, the allegation that Kumar was ‘absconding’. Quite clearly he wasn’t. If he had been, the CBI would hardly have landed up at his doorstep expecting to question and, if need be, apprehend him. In any case, the Kolkata Police made it known that Kumar attended office all day on Saturday, attended an event at a hotel and was to flag off a vintage car rally on Sunday morning.

Further, the CBI’s extreme language – that it ‘would have rounded him up if he hadn’t cooperated with us’ – was not exactly conducive to elicit mutual courtesies. At the same time, it might well be said that Kumar should not have ignored the two notices the CBI claims to have sent. Here again, though, there is a matter of protocol. The CBI brass consists of IPS officers. Kumar, too, is one who has sufficient seniority and position to expect some form of courtesy from those of his service. Moreover, the CBI has not told the public what exactly the ‘notices’ demanded and in what manner. We are not in a position to judge, therefore, how any self-respecting officer would have responded to them. If we take on board the proposition that legalities of jurisdiction are not the only determinants of a situation, it could well be said that a more collegial approach may have obviated these contretemps.

Even if legalities and matters of jurisdiction are factored in, it is difficult to sustain the CBI’s modus operandi, if what Pravin Tripathi, Bengal’s joint commissioner of police (crime), says is true: that the CBI officers ‘just said they had come for a secret operation. We don't know what kind of operation it is.’ The CBI team was not conducting an operation against a ‘terrorist’ outfit, it was about to question a commissioner of police. It had no right to play clandestine war games.

There are other issues. The CBI claims it had all the papers it needed to question Kumar, while the state police and the chief minister says that it didn’t have the necessary warrants. The CBI also points out that it is empowered to act without warrants if it has ‘reasonable’ grounds. Kumar, on the other hand, has claimed that he had written to the CBI director in response to the notices that a witch-hunt was being carried out at the behest of a senior leader of a political party (no prizes for guessing) and the case ought to be transferred to another officer. The CBI might be right about its latitude to act, but the argument is probably infructuous given the fact that the Calcutta High Court has restrained the CBI from enforcing its summons. A hearing is scheduled for 13 February.

The point, however, is that the whole thing is political. Mamata is right when she says, without prejudice to any other issues, that the Centre is trying to engineer a coup and using the CBI to undermine the federal structure, though the idea that it is trying to create the grounds for President’s rule might be a trifle fanciful. Several circumstances point to the CBI action being motivated and specifically directed by the Central government. Mainly, it is a question of timing.

The dates of the notices issued to Kumar are not in the public sphere. But it is known that by mid-2018 the CBI had told the Supreme Court that the state police were not cooperating in the ponzi probe. It is not unreasonable to assume that the notices had been issued by then (we must to an extent go out on a limb). The CBI could have acted much sooner. Instead it chose to act at a time when the Lok Sabha elections are virtually upon us. Moreover, the action comes days after Mamata’s show of Opposition unity and even closer to the days on which BJP president Amit Shah and Modi talked up the issue of corruption around the Ponzi schemes at separate rallies in Bengal.

Finally, a new director has been appointed to head the headless CBI. Why could the CBI not have waited for him to take charge – in about a week or so – before launching what has proved to be a misadventure. In any case, if memory serves, the Supreme Court had forbidden acting director Nageswara Rao from taking any major decisions relating to policy. A raid that has an impact on Centre-state relations can surely be construed as being implicated in policy matters.

The entire exercise must finally be seen in the context of the relentless attack on institutions initiated by the Modi government and its determination to use every instrument at its disposal to harass and hamstring Opposition parties – across the board. But once in a while the Modi-Shah duopoly does get it wrong. And this could just prove to be one of them.

At a time when the Opposition is finding it difficult to string together a coherent united front, the CBI raids have brought a number of parties solidly behind Mamata. Among them are Rahul Gandhi and Ahmed Patel of the Congress, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, DMK boss MK Stalin, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav and Lalu Prasad, Janata Dal (Secular) leader HD Deve Gowda, Samajwadi Party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav and BJP rebel Yashwant Sinha. And they are all singing from the same hymn-sheet. The burden of their song is that the federal structure is being destroyed and an undeclared Emergency is haunting India.

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Updated Date: Feb 04, 2019 15:20:10 IST