Whenever a controversy surrounds the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the discussion that follows inevitably leads to only one remedy, that is, autonomy, which is generally understood as freedom from government control. Some cases in the last two to three years — such as those relating to the 2G spectrum, coal mining and the Commonwealth Games — have raised questions about the credibility of the agency. Charges of corruption, delays in completing investigation, taking U-turns in investigation, and booking people on the basis of wrong assumptions have delivered a body blow to its image. Therefore, a demand is often raised to put the CBI either under the Lokpal or the superintendence of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC).
Would such measures automatically confer autonomy on the CBI? In this context a point that deserves debate is whether the ruling establishment alone can be blamed and whether its leadership is also responsible for a fall in its professional standards and misdirections.
My long experience in the CBI has been that the entire blame cannot be put on the ruling establishment. This is not to say that there is no extraneous pressure on the CBI. There is a litany of cases beginning from the time of DP Kohli, D Sen and John Lobo, and this organisation withstood all pressure. The CBI has given an outstanding account of its commitment to professionalism and impartiality in solving cases like the assassinations of Deen Dayal Upadhyay, Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh, and scams and other economic crimes. This was not done under an umbrella of autonomy but of strong leadership, which acted independently.
Functional independence is of utmost importance in investigation. Does the existing legal framework provide independence? The Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) and the Evidence Act are so well crafted that they provide enough safeguards. But in changing social conditions, increasing economic activity, alert public opinion and the watchful media, special laws also become necessary. Therefore, the Lokpal Act was passed to provide guidance to the CBI and insulate it from pressure.
It has been argued that the CVC has failed to exercise effective ‘superintendence’ over the CBI. However, it deserves clarification that superintendence as laid down in the CVC Act does not signify determining the course of investigation or intervening in its plan of action. Superintendence cannot be substituted for supervising investigation, which can be exercised — as mandated by the CrPC — only by the police officer concerned. Of course, the courts have the powers to observe and oversee the course of investigation and such powers have saved many a case from disaster. Interventions by the higher judiciary have not only helped the CBI to act independently but also given the agency the strength to pursue its investigations with speed and vigour. Ultimately with all the existing or contemplated layers of command and control over the CBI, it is its leadership that alone can achieve excellence.
The standards set by the founding fathers of the organisation were the following: Carefully selecting the CBI personnel on the basis of not just seniority and confidential rolls but also enquiries about their life-style, sense of values and standards of integrity. The present procedure — though well-thought-out — has not served well in checking the current mess that the CBI finds itself in. Now, lobbying for a post and ulterior motives have vitiated the selection process.
A selection process as has now been envisaged in the Lokpal Act is a promising path to achieving autonomy. But faulty selections can demolish even well-conceived edifices as the CVC and even the Lokpal. The CBI leadership must reinvent itself by learning to live by the law and stand by the law, which, to my mind, is a guarantee for its autonomy. I hope with the change of guard now going to take place in the CBI, it will turn over a new leaf.
(PC Sharma is a former director of the CBI. The views expressed by the author are personal.)