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Mainstream, VOL LI No 22, May 18, 2013

A Lost Opportunity

Saturday 18 May 2013, by Kuldip Nayar

Believe it or not, the Supreme Court gave the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) an opportunity to be independent in one of the matters before it, asking the agency why it was not independent. Yet the CBI failed to grab the chance with both hands. It had a foolproof case against Law Minister Ashwani Kumar when he amended the report on the coal blocks allotment scandal. The government’s blatant interference resulted in a “corrected draft”, exactly the way the Law Minister wanted the report to be.

The Supreme Court said that the CBI had “shaken the system” and it expected the agency to give its independent verdict on the probe. But it did not because the agency realised that that would have meant opposing the government. Apparently, it was the failure of both the CBI and the government. They could have seen to it that the agency would have its own say. Now that it has lost the chance to be viable, the way out for the government is to make the CBI independent.

The present Bill pending before Parliament falls short of giving the CBI independent character. It looks as if both the major political parties, the Congress and BJP, do not want the agency to have teeth. I do not know how far other parties want the agency to be independent. In any case, the CBI has lost the opportunity to become viable.

Corruption still gets most attention in Indian politics. The present government at the Centre beats all records in scandals. Never before did the CBI have so many eyes riveted on it and what comes out again and again is the inadequacy of its powers. The reason, simply put, is that the CBI realises the extent of independence it can exercise in the present set- up. The Law Minister’s argument that he has not committed any wrong by vetting the report as his Ministry has been the authorised legal adviser of the agency sounds hollow.

However, every time a scam tumbles out of the government’s cupboard, there is a familiar exercise that follows. The CBI is asked to conduct a probe. But when the agency remains a department of the government and part of the system, doubts about its functioning cannot be brushed aside. Several former Directors of the CBI have written articles and books to show how they were given instructions from above to decide a case in a particular way.

In the entire scenario it is difficult to say whether or not Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had been briefed. Because of his clean record in public life, we come to infer that he did not know. It is probable, if not possible, that such a situation did obtain and that Manmohan Singh knew what was happening under his nose. But then you expect some heads to roll when the scams come to light and particularly when you can spot out the officials in the loop. Why has no one been punished till today and why has nothing concrete emerged after practically every investigation?

This doesn’t surprise me at all. The party was confronted with several such situations before and had weathered them all without much ado or damage to its existence. Yet what the Ashwani Kumar and, of late, Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal episodes have brought to the fore is that even before one controversy dies down, there is another one waiting to catch the administration on the wrong foot. No government since independence has been as badly battered and shattered as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s has been.

But there is a certain pattern to the CBI-Law Minister controversy. As was to be expected, the Congress first dismissed the accusation and then issued a perfunctory explanation before finally admitting that the Law Minister did go through the report and suggest some changes to it. But for the three-judge Bench, which ordered CBI Director Ranjit Sinha to file an affidavit, the actual behind-the-scene activities would not have come to light, although we know the agency always functioned under the influence of the government of the day. Hence, the confession by the CBI Director before the Supreme Court that “the investigation agency does not exist in isolation” is no revelation.

However, Sinha’s admission has let the cat out of the bag. We knew that institutions like the CBI have been devalued over a period of time. And it is the government which has its last word on a charge-sheet because of political power. Even with the Supreme Court breathing down its neck, there have been several instances where the CBI’s investigations have remained questionable. In fact, political parties have their own views and positions on ways and means to improve the efficiency and accountability of the CBI. But no government has been ever willing to give up its administrative control over the agency.

Take the case of the BJP, the main Opposition party. It did create a ruckus in Parliament over the issue, demanding the resignation of Ashwani Kumar. So did the other parties with their leaders baying for his blood. But we have not seen anybody making concrete proposals to insulate the CBI from government interference. In a way, it is good that the Apex Court is seized of the entire matter and is determined to liberate the agency from the clutches of the government. But it remains to be seen what structure it would recommend to give the CBI full freedom.

Unfortunately, the government does not seem to be even sorry for what has happened to revive faith in governance. Some Ministers try to explain things “in proper perspective”. Yet what the Manmohan Singh Government does not realise is the yawning trust deficit: none of its claims is accepted, none of its explanations is considered credible and none of its actions is taken seriously. It is thus the loss of faith which has put a question-mark against every segment of the administration. 

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com

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