CBI no longer a caged parrot, but cannot be a wild eagle either

The controversy regarding the post of CBI Director and the internal war between top officers of CBI, going on since last few months, seems to have a taken a definitive and concluding turn. The selection panel for appointment of the CBI Director approved the removal of Alok Verma from the post of CBI Director.

The office of the CBI Director is one of the most sensitive posts in the anti-corruption framework of the Bharatiya State, and the internal strife between the Director and his second-in-command played out a complicated and unique situation for the government to deal with.

Till the year 1997, CBI’s autonomy was limited and many former PMs and governments utilized the office for political purposes with the CBI Director at the mercy of the then governments. Some examples of this are CBI’s ineffectual role in Bofors & Jain Hawala scams, Sister Abhaya murder case, and former CBI joint director B. R. Lall’s statement that he was asked to go soft on extradition for Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson and to drop the charges in the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster. In Lall’s book, Who Owns CBI, he details how investigations are manipulated and derailed.

As part of the general process of evolution of Governance, in the year 2003, CBI’s autonomy was given a boost by introduction of a selection committee chaired by CVC (Chief Vigilance Commissioner) for appointment of the CBI Director. In 2013, the selection panel was changed to comprise of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of Bharat. This increased the chances of a non biased, apolitical and a person of unquestionable integrity to be appointed as the CBI Director. Moreover, the tenure of the CBI Director was fixed at 2 years. This further strengthened the autonomy of the institution.

This whole episode of the infighting between two senior most officers of CBI and the consequent process involving the Government, CVC, Supreme Court and the Selection Panel showcases beautifully the critical balance existing between the various institutions of the Bharatiya state. When the spat and cross allegations between Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana became public and were brought to the notice of the PM, instead of taking sides, the government consulted the CVC, which exercises superintendence over the functioning of the CBI in so far as it relates to the investigation of offences alleged to have been committed under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

On the basis of facts highlighted by CVC and its opinion, the government decided to send both the officers on leave and appointed an Interim Director. This was clearly a right move, keeping the Institution of CBI above that of the officers manning it.

Alok Verma approached the Supreme Court citing that the CBI Director tenure is fixed for two years and that if he has to be removed, it has to be done the same way he was appointed i.e. through the Selection Committee. Supreme Court, after having gone through the submissions of the government and CVC, restored Alok Verma as the CBI Director with limited powers. Supreme Court was of the view that even if there is doubt regarding the integrity of the CBI Director, the process must be treated sacrosanct and the decision on removal of Alok Verma should be taken by the Selection Committee.

Through this move, Supreme Court established the precedence that while the CBI Director may be removed if prima facie there is a question on his integrity, the procedure for his appointment/removal has to be followed as per books. This precedence is critical as it protects the autonomy of the CBI Director w.r.t. any future friction with any government in power.

This case has also proved that the present procedure of appointment of the CBI Director ensures that CBI is no longer a ‘caged parrot‘ as the Supreme Court had earlier called it in May 2013 when clear evidence emerged of the UPA government’s interference in CBI investigation into the Coalgate scam.

If the CBI Director does his work with integrity, he has the protection of the Selection Committee which has one member from the Judiciary and one from the opposition political party, with the Government being a minority in the same. It also shows how the power of the CVC balances the power of the CBI Director in ensuring that the anti-corruption framework of the Bharatiya State functions smoothly.

Having said this, there is one aspect to the procedure for appointment and removal of the CBI Director that needs another look. In the appointment of Former CBI Director Ranjit Sinha, it was common knowledge that Ranjit Sinha had questionable integrity, yet he was appointed the CBI Director. It would be an improvement of the procedure, if it mandates that in case any of the Selection Committee members except the PM (as he is the proposing authority) are personally known to the proposed CBI Director, that person should recuse himself/herself from the procedure and be replaced by the vote of the second person in the hierarchy.

As there are just 3 members of this Selection Committee, such a procedural change will prevent an officer of questionable integrity to become the CBI Director due to personal relations with Committee members. In the present case, the role of the LoP Mallikarjun Kharge is quite unfortunate and unbecoming of the critical role of a LoP. He had opposed the government in the initial appointment of Alok Verma citing Verma’s ‘lack of experience in CBI’, and now opposed his removal. This inconsistency regarding the same person reeks of petty politics. The LoP must put his vote as an institution and not as a mere politician trying to attack the government. There are some things which should be left out of politics and this is one of them.

We must congratulate the Government, the CVC and the Supreme Court for following their roles as per laid down protocols and not exceeding their constitutional roles. This will only lead to strengthening Bharat’s democracy and raising the people’s confidence in all the national institutions.

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About the Author

Rahul Swami
The author is a strategy, campaign management & public policy professional working as an advisor to public leaders & organisations.