‘CBI vs CBI’ feud shows govt’s incompetence

Harihar Swarup

Sadly, the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s premier investigative agency, has been described as “Comical Bureau”, “Bureau of Intrigues” and headlines in newspapers, reflecting internal tussle inside the CBI, screamed “CBI vs CBI”. Why this prestigious agency has come to such a pass? Possibly, its misuse by the political parties—Congress or the BJP— when in power, to meet their political ends. The agency has been losing its credibility.
The latest is — ostensibly, in a bid to end the war between two top officers of the CBI, the government stripped Director Alok Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana of all responsibilities. And sent them on administrative leave, saying the “faction feud has reached its peak—leading to a potential loss of credibility and reputation” of the premier investigative agency.
As the government released an order from the Appointment Committee of the Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and named Joint Director M Nageshwar Rao, a 1986-bach Odisha cadre IPS officer, to look after the “duties and functions” of the Director with immediate effect as an “interim measure”.
Expectedly, Verma moved the Supreme Court which agreed to take up his petition against the government’s decision to divest him of the powers—he has a fixed two-year tenure until February 2, 2019. In his petition Verma, while underlining that the CBI is an independent and autonomous agency, said: “There are bound to be occasions when certain investigations into high functionaries do not take due direction that may be desirable to the government.”
Immediately after taking charge, Rao effected a major shake-up at the top, shunting out officers, the majority from teams probing bribery charges against Asthana, a Gujarat cadre officer, who has been loggerheads with Verma.
The government is also squarely responsible because all this has happened under its watch. Its decision to send away both warring CBI officers and ask a special investigative team to probe allegations and counter  allegations, while entirely sensible, doesn’t even begin to address the question why Verma vs Asthana  feud  was allowed to play out for as long as it did.
BJP has made a consistent claim since 2014 when it stormed into power, that one of the defining differences between its government and the one run by Congress is that the latter was prone to dysfunction while the former is always in charge. At least on the CBI question, that claim is in tatters.
The really troubling perceptional question for the BJP here is not so much whether it was using CBI as a political tool. That charge has been made against the Congress for far longer. What is hurting and will likely hurt the BJP is popular perception that its government appeared helpless as the CBI story moved from chaos to farce.
Therefore, countering the Congress charge that Verma was targeted because he was apparently “thinking of a Rafale probe” may be politically necessary right now for BJP. It may also be relatively easy to do so—how does Congress know what Verma was thinking is the obvious retort. But the bigger political job for BJP is to convince people that on the CBI issue, it is back to control. Because for the first time since 2014, and weeks away from the beginning for a long election cycle, the opposition has the chance, if it is minimally clever, to build a narrative that this government, too, is prone to dysfunction.
So, BJP will hope that SIT will keep Verma and Asthana busy, that courts won’t upend its interim arrangement for CBI, that Rao will step up to the plate and appear as an officer in charge, and that CBI investigations into non-CBI corruption cases will make no news.
Note, however, that there are many things here that the government does not control or may or may not be able to control. For example, one known unknown right now is how Supreme Court will respond to the ex-CBI chief being sent on leave. The other problem can be whether the accused in various CBI high profile cases supervised by Asthana will benefit from corruption charges against him.
So, the perception of chaos may not necessarily go away. Therefore, BJP needs a politically solid and institutionally impeccable talking and action point, a real solution that will help restore CBI’s institutional credibility and prove that the government is back in charge.
That solution, as many ex-top cops and commentators with domain knowledge of law enforcement affairs have said multiple times, is to make CBI a statutory body through a fresh law. CBI functions under clauses that draw institutional validity from Delhi Police Establishment Act. Many Supreme Court efforts to institute operational independence for CBI have essentially failed because the agency as it stands now, is neither de jure nor de facto status immune from political interference. (IPA)

Monday, 12 November, 2018