CBI quizzes Harish Rawat in Delhi: Has the agency overstepped its brief?

  • Abhishek Sharan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 24, 2016 15:54 IST
Uttarakhand chief minister Harish Rawat reaches the CBI headquarters. (Virendra Singh Gosain/ HT Photo)

Uttarakhand chief minister Harish Rawat arrived at the CBI headquarters on Tuesday morning to face questioning in connection with a corruption probe.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a Preliminary Enquiry (PE) on April 29 to investigate allegations of horse-trading based on a March sting video on the state’s request at a time when Uttarakhand was under President’s Rule.

The video allegedly showed Rawat negotiating a deal to lure rebel Congress legislators to rustle up support for a floor test on March 28 — which never took place.

A Preliminary Enquiry is a precursor to a formal probe and is registered when a complaint is filed or information is available indicating serious misconduct on the part of a public servant, but it is not adequate to justify the registration of an FIR. A notice for questioning in this regard was served to Rawat last week.

Read: Harish Rawat shows who’s the boss in Uttarakhand, but conditions apply

Rawat was earlier summoned for questioning a day before the floor test on May 10, but he did not appear before the CBI at the time. The Uttarakhand high court on May 20 refused to quash the agency’s probe and asked Rawat to “cooperate” in the investigation, but also directed the CBI to show “regard” to the office of the CM.

Instances of the CBI questioning incumbent chief ministers are rare, and its directive to Rawat to appear in Delhi to record his statement in a preliminary enquiry, and not a regular probe, was “avoidable”, said an agency officer, who did not want to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

“Though it is the CBI’s prerogative to decide the venue and time, the agency could have questioned the CM in Dehradun itself, at his office or home,” said the officer.

“[It] could have sent him a questionnaire, as has happened a few times in probes involving those holding high posts instead of calling them in like common suspects.”

The CBI recorded two witness statements, including that of a dissident legislator, and said it found the sting footage to be “genuine”, although it didn’t confirm if the same was put through a forensic test.

“In a PE probe, the aim of interrogation is only to judge whether there is any substance in the allegations… that merits the probe being pursued further. So the questioning could have happened even in Dehradun,” said the officer.

Read: Harish Rawat accepts he is in sting CD, but says what’s wrong in it

The CBI inquiry was initiated on the state’s request after President’s Rule was imposed in Uttarakhand on March 27 after nine Congress MLAs revolted against the Rawat government and sided with the BJP. Rawat was reinstated after he won a Supreme Court-monitored trust vote on May 10.

After his re-instatement, Rawat told the media on May 13, “I am waiting for the day when CBI arrests me for the sting.”

The insinuation was that politics, and not the law, was motivating the CBI.

Three years ago, in May 2013, the Supreme Court had called the CBI “a caged parrot speaking in its masters’ voice”, expressing its disapproval of the then UPA-2 regime’s alleged interference in the agency’s coal scam probe.

The apex court’s observation had come after the then CBI director filed an affidavit stating that the then law minister and senior officials of the Prime Minister’s Officer had made changes “in the heart of the report” of the coal-scam probe. “The CBI needs to get autonomous vis-à-vis the government of the day, in the real sense of the term,” said a former CBI officer.

“The CBI needs to get autonomous vis-à-vis the government of the day, in the real sense of the term,” he said.

And Rawat’s inference appears to also be substantiated by a quick glance at the CBI’s high-profile probes since it got a new chief in December 2014, six months after the NDA replaced the UPA-2 government at the Centre.

The CBI is probing two serving and two former chief ministers, all of who belong to the main party in Opposition, Congress, pointed out a former CBI officer. In addition to Rawat, Himachal Pradesh CM Virbhadra Singh (since June 2015), former Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot (since August 2015), and former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda (since May 16) are under CBI scanner.

Along with Gehlot, the CBI is also probing the roles of Congress’ Rajasthan chief Sachin Pilot, former finance minister P Chidambaram’s businessman son Karti Chidambaram and former Union minister Vayalar Ravi’s son, Ravi Krishna, in an August 2015 case.

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