The new CBI director, Anil Kumar Sinha, takes over the reins at a particularly grim time for India’s premier investigation agency. The agency’s reputation has deteriorated owing to its handling of high-profile cases including the Aarushi Talwar case and the 2G, coal mining and Commonwealth Games scams.
Mr Sinha’s predecessor recently had the ignominy of being told by the Supreme Court to recuse himself from the 2G case. It is difficult to recall when the announcement of a CBI investigation last invoked expectations of rigorous inquiry and eventual justice.
An ambitious country like India cannot continue to have its leading investigation agency dogged by controversy and inefficiency. The Narendra Modi government must realise that having a hobbled CBI will in the end undermine its own reputation. The problem and the potential fixes are fairly clear. The CBI is undermined repeatedly by political interference despite strictures from the courts.
There is certainly scope for officers to demonstrate more integrity and resist interference, something that is woefully lacking, particularly when strong governments reign.
But there can be no substitute for structural solutions. The CBI lacks financial autonomy to insulate itself from political interference, fill vacancies and plot its own modernisation programme. The agency also has no control over the appointment of its senior officers.
The CBI leadership has repeatedly petitioned for autonomy to little avail. Under the UPA rule, the Centre refused to grant the ex-officio powers of a secretary to the CBI director on the grounds that it would set a precedent and “create heartburn” in other organisations. Respected jurists and policing experts have long argued that without a separate legal framework, the attempt to change the CBI from within will be fruitless. They reckon that the CBI ought to have statutory status like the Election Commission or the CAG and have its own charter that flows from a separate piece of legislation.
These are arguably tough questions for politicians wary of relinquishing authority and creating new power structures. The Modi government must, however, set in motion processes where such debates can take place. Creative handling at the Centre is imperative if the states are to follow suit and reflect constructively. A good start would be to hold Mr Sinha to high standards of delivery and accord him the degree of freedom his agency sorely needs.