The premier investigating agency — the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) — is in the bad news with its top two men fighting in public. It all started with the appointment of Rakesh Asthana as the special director of CBI in October 2017. The CBI director, Alok Verma, had raised an objection before the central vigilance commission (CVC) alleging that Asthana’s credibility was questionable, citing his connections with the bribery case involving a Gujarat-based company – Sterling Biotech.
Before Verma was appointed as the CBI director, Asthana was the acting director. Appointment of Verma and, later on, Asthana’s appointment as the special director did not go well with either of them. So much so, it has been reported by a leading daily that Asthana never kept the latter informed about certain decisions that he took.
All this while, everyone had thought that the tussle between the two heads will subside. But the worst came out when the CBI refused to send Asthana as its representative for a CBI selection committee meeting, alleging that he was being investigated in corruption cases. Verma was out of the country at that time and requested the CVC to postpone the meeting till July 19 so that he could attend the meeting.
Adding fuel to the fire, Asthana, too, wrote to the cabinet secretary alleging corruption charges against Verma. This made a ripple effect with a Hyderabad-based businessman — Sana Satish — alleging that he paid a hefty sum for keeping the CBI at bay. Incidentally, the complainant is one of the suspects in the Moin Qureshi corruption case. Following the complaint by Sana Satish, the CBI filed a case against Asthana and Devendra Kumar, a deputy superintendent of police–rank CBI officer.
Asthana, too, wrote a letter to the CVC alleging that Verma had tried to interfere in the investigation proceedings of at least 10 cases, including the Moin Qureshi corruption case. He mentioned that at one point of time, he was about to arrest Sana Satish but Verma stopped him, substantiating his claim that he seems to have taken a bribe from Sana Satish. Not only this, he accused Verma of stopping him from investigating cases like the IRCTC case against Lalu Prasad Yadav and the INX media case involving P Chidambaram.
Be that as it may, the open turf battle between two top individuals has raised a question on the credibility of the CBI as an institution. In yet another development, the government forced Verma to go on leave and appointed joint director Nageshwar Rao as the interim director.
While there are a set of people who have alleged that Rao, too, has a series of complaints against him, there are others, who challenged the government’s legal right to remove Verma. The current proceedings not only points out the organisational crisis in the CBI but also questions the role of the government.
Taking note of the gravity of the situation, the government might have thought it fit to remove the erring bosses, but has actually gone a little too far in appointing another, whose track record seems to be questionable. Within a few hours of his appointment, Rao transferred half-a-dozen assimilating the role of Shivaji Rao Gaekwad of the 2001 film Nayak: The Real Hero.
Meanwhile, Verma moved the Supreme Court, challenging the forcible leave order. The court ordered that the alleged corruption charges against Asthana be investigated and a report submitted within two weeks under the supervision of a judge. The court restrained Nageshwar Rao from taking any policy decision till November 12, when the case will be heard again.
Not only this, the court will review all decisions taken by him so far. In other words, it will look into each and every transfer case. To cut the story short, the court seems to have taken over the role of the CVC, which is entrusted with the job of overseeing the operations of the CBI.
The Supreme Court may not have questioned the way the government acted in this case but has questioned the role of the CVC. Of course, the government took action on the recommendations of the CVC but, of late, it has been acting like a postman, forwarding complaints to the government without even bothering to get a reply from the concerned department.
For instance, in this very particular case, when Verma raised objections about the appointment of Asthana as the special director, the CVC did not even care to go into the details. Instead, it rubbished the confidential report Verma submitted by saying that the decision has already been taken unanimously by the selection committee.
In fact, the note that the CVC prepared and forwarded to the cabinet secretary for taking action last week points out that the CBI has not been able to establish any wrong-doing in the investigation against Rakesh Asthana. The CVC does mention that the CBI should carry on a fair investigation but it also points out that it must take the competent authority’s approval before doing so! The note seems to favour Asthana but it does not show any urgency for the government to call a midnight cabinet meeting and ask both Verma and Asthana to go on leave.
The case only shows the extensive politicisation of a top-level investigative agency. Since Asthana was working on certain cases that would have given a political advantage to the government, it did not consider it necessary to go into the confidential report that Verma submitted. In fact, whenever the government felt it necessary to have its say in certain matters which may have a direct impact on its own stake, it had gone overboard to have a law enacted. Of course, other political parties, too, have consented for obvious reasons.
Small wonder then that a proposal that was mooted by the then union home minister Y.B. Chavan on April 19, 1970, for enacting a law to govern the functioning of the CBI, has not yet seen the light of the day. In 1978, a committee was formed under the chairmanship of L P Singh, former union home secretary, with a recommendation for giving a statutory status to the CBI with well-defined legal powers ensuring independence from the powers that be. Needless to say, the report was consigned to the archives.
Another proposal was mooted during the tenure of P V Narasimha Rao but to no avail. Neither the CBI nor the PM showed any interest in pursuing the matter. After the passage of the right to information Act, people hoped that agencies like the CBI would now be under public scrutiny. But the CBI conveniently managed to get an exemption based on the recommendations of none other than the committee of secretaries! Clearly, the government, whichever it might be, had a vested interest in controlling the CBI.
Would things have been any better if institutions like the CBI had a statutory status with no interference from the government? Doubtful, if we go by the experience of the Reserve Bank. So far the apex bank has not budged much from its stand and has always voiced its concerns stoically whenever its independence was under threat. But we had seen how the government took a decision like that of demonetisation without properly consulting the RBI governor about the required level of preparedness before scrapping the old currency.
Not only this, the recent move of the government of having a separate regulator for payments bank shows the way it wants to scuttle the independence of the apex bank. One can understand the level of frustration as the Deputy Governor of RBI, Viral Acharya, spoke recently against the government while addressing a gathering of industrialists. Citing the example of Argentine government’s interference in the affairs of its central bank, Acharya said that, “the governments that do not respect central bank independence will sooner or later incur the wrath of financial markets, ignite an economic fire, and come to rue the day they undermined an important regulatory institution.”
Of course, the government is upset as RBI expressed its concern publicly and that, too, at a time when Modi was on a foreign tour. Instead of introspecting at what went wrong, the government started the blame game by making Urjit Patel responsible for the statement. Not only that, Jaitley blamed the RBI for the huge pile of bad loans, without even thinking that these loans were mostly given under political pressures and RBI had no say in it.
This government came into power propagating the idea of good governance. But when it comes to acting on what it propagates, it has not set any precedent. In fact, there has been no difference in its deeds than the previous government’s.
The man with 56-inch chest does not seem to have the huge heart and guts to give independence to institutions like the CBI and the CVC and maintain the sanctity of the RBI. Instead, he seems to be keen to clip the wings of institutions like the RBI, which has so far acted prudently and has shown its mettle in criticising the government, voicing concerns on its policies. Alas, this is not good governance, Modiji!
(The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org(Published on 05th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 45)