India Today - - EDITOR - (Aroon Purie)

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.

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