The recent discordance regarding the chief of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has proved to be the most glaring example of the political interference in the premier investigation agency. The CBI has been called as ‘a caged parrot’ by the Supreme Court of India in 2013 due to its inability to investigate offences impartially and its repeated misuse by the ruling governments to subdue the political opponents. But the recent crisis in the CBI has dented the public trust in the agency. The CBI is considered as the most powerful and competent investigating body and is tasked with handling serious economic, criminal and fraud cases across the nation. The controversy over the control of the CBI has been caused due to the ego clashes between the top officials, total disregard for the professional ethics in the working of the agency and malicious political meddling by the stakeholders. The need is to look at the chronological developments in the entire conundrum and make critical changes to the entire system to ensure impartial working of the CBI.
Rakesh Asthana v. Alok Verma – The ‘Skeleton’ out of the Cupboard
The problem in the CBI started with the clash of the CBI chief Alok Verma and the Special Director Rakesh Asthana on the October, 2018. In the unprecedented development, an FIR was filed against Rakesh Asthana for allegedly taking a bribe of &undefined; 3 crores in a case against the meat exporter Moin Qureshi. It was followed by Rakesh Asthana levelling serious charges of corruption on the then CBI chief Alok Verma, resulting in filling of cross-FIR. The events were a grim reminder of how the ego clashes between the serious officials of the government could take a dirty turn. The central government sent both the senior officials on ‘long leave’ and tasked the CVC to investigate the charges against them. The government has for the time being appointed Nageswara Rao as the Interim Chief of the CBI. The public trust in the impartiality of the agency has suffered adversely with the senior officials mud-slinging at each other with criminal charges. The opposition parties were quick to point out the gross-mismanagement of the CBI at the hands of the ruling dispensation and an utter mockery of premier investigating agency due to the political interference.
Supreme Court reinstates Alok Verma
The government’s move to send both the CBI Chief Alok Verma as well as the Special Director Rakesh Asthana on a ‘long leave’ until the pending of enquiry by the CVC was challenged by Alok Verma in the Supreme Court (SC). He contended that the government does not have the power to send the CBI Chief on leave and has trespassed its mandate. He also pleaded that the government’s move to send him on leave was violated of the Supreme Court’s judgment in the case of Vineet Narain v. Union of India (which mandated fixed ‘2 years tenure’ for the CBI Chief in order to maintain the impartiality of the organisation). On the behalf of the government, the Attorney said that the move was necessary to preserve the dignity and public image of the agency. An NGO named Common Cause has also filed a PIL in the Apex Court seeking impartial enquiry by the Court monitored SIT in the charges levelled against the top CBI officers on 24th October, 2018. The Court has sent notice to the Central Government to respond in the case. Meanwhile, the CVC gave its report as regards the charges against Alok Verma to the Supreme Court in a sealed envelope. After examining the evidence and considering the arguments of both the government as well that of Alok Verma, the Apex Court reinstated the former CBI chief Alok Verma with full powers.
The bane of political interference in the working of the CBI was brought out when Alok Verma who was reinstated by the Apex Court after the long legal battle was unceremoniously removed by the Selection Panel in two days. It is pertinent to point out that the Selection Panel for the CBI Chief consists of the Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India (or his nominee) and the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. On the 10th January 2019, meeting of the Selection Panel, Alok Verma was removed as the Director of the CBI with the majority of 2-1 with the Prime Minister Modi and Justice Ranjan Gogoi voting to remove him while the Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge opposed the move. Alok Verma was removed from the post of the CBI Chief because of the adverse report of the CVC inquiry against him and the secret intercepts by RAW that hinted at his involvement in the corruption cases. The Leader of Opposition was right to point out that if the CVC report incriminated Alok Verma in corruption charges, then why did the Apex Court (after going through the report) reinstate him barely two days back? But the government quickly transferred him as Director General, Fire Services. In the meanwhile, Nageswara Rao was again appointed as the interim CBI Chief by the government.
Petition against Nageswara Rao as ‘Interim Chief’
While the government appointed Nageswara Rao as the interim Chief of the CBI on 10th January 2019, a petition by the NGO Common Cause was filed before the Supreme Court challenging the appointment. The petition claim’s that the government’s action of appointing an interim CBI Chief without following the Vineet Narain Case’s guidelines is arbitrary and mala-fide. It also said that this action violated the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946 (CBI has been established in pursuant to this Act). It alleges that the recommendations of the Selection Committee were not taken into considerations before the appointment of Nageswara Rao as the Interim chief. In an interesting development, the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi recused himself from hearing the petition which challenged the appointment of Nageswara Rao on 21st January 2019. It is seen as a correct step by the legal experts as Justice Gogoi is also part of the Selection Panel which meets on 24th January 2019 to select the new CBI Chief.
Critical Questions left Unanswered by the Controversy
The entire episode of the ongoing power tussle in the CBI was brought out to the fore the shallow professional ethics followed in the agency. The blatant charges of corruption levelled against each other by the senior officials exposes the deep rooted malaise of corruption even in the CBI. The Modi government attempts to clandestinely reappoint Nageswara Rao as the Interim Chief without following the guidelines laid down by the SC hints at the political complacence. The motto of CBI ‘Industry, Impartiality and Integrity’ appears to be a hallowed promise of fiction. The fact that CVC’s report suggests that the ousted Chief Alok Verma was involved in corruption charges totally impeaches the credibility of the CBI.
The Road Ahead
The ugly conundrum in the CBI exposed the fallibility of the agency to fall prey to political interference and corrupting influence of the unscrupulous officials. The need of the hour is to make necessary legislative changes to the process of functioning of the CBI so as to vitiate the charges of corruption. The law must provide the officers of the investigating agencies with stringent safeguards in conducting their work. The guidelines laid down in the Vineet Narain’s case by the Supreme Court as regards the appointment as well as the security of the tenure of the CBI Chief must be strictly complied with. It is hoped that the CBI’s infamous episode of corruption and political intermeddling will serve as a grim reminder for all the constitutional and national agencies tasked with independent and impartial performance of the functions.
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Vineet Narain & Others vs Union of India & Another, 1996 SCC (2) 199.
Image Credit: The Quint
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