The CBI’s initials have long been the butt of alternative interpretation—from Narendra Modi’s 2013 Facebook quip ‘Congress Bureau of Investigation’ to Rahul Gandhi’s recent tweet ‘Captive Bureau of Investigation’. The punchline is really the same: that India’s most powerful and constitutionally independent investigative agency is ultimately a tool of the government of the day.
In 2013, an irate Supreme Court judge famously called the elite agency a “caged parrot” for its shoddy inquiry into alleged irregularities in the allocation of coalfield licences. Four years later, more ignominy followed when the CBI booked two of its former directors on charges of corruption.
But if we thought that was the nadir, developments over the past year culminating in a flashpoint last week proved how mistakenly optimistic we were. The director of CBI, Alok Kumar Verma, and his deputy, Rakesh Asthana, were asked to proceed on leave following charges and countercharges of corruption. The unprecedented and ugly feud between them reiterates a dark truth often whispered in informal conversations: that the CBI’s become a playground of its political masters.
The Central Bureau of Investigation was set up in 1963 to probe serious cases of corruption and economic offences. Gradually, several highprofile cases of conventional crimes such as murder and rape also landed at the agency’s doorstep, mostly because state police forces bungled with routine investigation. Placed directly under the Prime Minister’s Office, it emerged as the country’s premier investigative agency, often probing the alleged misconduct of India’s high and mighty.
Perhaps this empowered existence also became the CBI’s weakness. Since the early ’80s, the ruling party at the Centre often used the agency to ‘fix’ political rivals. As corruption became endemic, the CBI’s role shifted from probing malfeasance to managing the speed and direction of investigations for political convenience. Several bigticket cases of corruption involving top politicians—Bofors, Jain Hawala and the 2G spectrum scam—ended with no conviction. The agency also failed miserably in its investigation of more conventional criminal brutalities. We still don’t know who killed Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj Banjade in Noida, a decade ago. Indeed, in that case, the court censured the CBI for tampering with evidence and worse.
Our cover story this week, by Deputy Editor Uday Mahurkar, digs deep into the roots of this highly avoidable confrontation and reveals multiple players pulling strings from behind the scenes. It’s a classic case of a political and bureaucratic tug of war, but the charges being traded are too serious to be dismissed as mere oneupmanship. In his letters to the Cabinet Secretary and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), Asthana listed 10 cases of alleged irregularities against his boss, Verma, while the CBI, under Verma, has accused Asthana of accepting a Rs 3 crore bribe. The widespread perception that Asthana, a Gujarat cadre IPS officer, was brought to the agency at the behest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah makes the recent developments all the more intriguing.
The prime minister cannot entirely escape responsibility for this unsavoury episode, as he had more than fair warning about the impending clash. But for reasons best known to him, he chose to look away. The government, on the recommendation of the CVC, an institution entrusted by the Supreme Court to monitor the CBI’s functions, took action against the two officers, but it was too little too late. The incident had blown the lid off the CBI to reveal the snake pit inside. Despite its chequered past, the CBI was still regarded as the last resort for investigation in the country. The current snafu has severely damaged its reputation.
However, the game is not over yet. Asthana has sought protection from the Delhi High Court against any action by his own agency, while Verma has moved the Supreme Court against the government’s order effectively sacking him. As has happened so many times before, it will be finally left to the courts to mend this administrative dysfunction. For someone who takes pride in his administrative skills, the meltdown at the top of the CBI will remain a blot on Modi’s record of governance. Restoring the credibility of the country’s top internal probe agency will take time and some longterm reforms. But that will only succeed if politicians desist from keeping their grubby hands off the CBI.