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The many woes that plague the CBI

Absence of autonomy is not the only affliction the CBI suffers from. Its handling of the Birla-Parakh episode suggests the rot runs significantly deeper. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Oct 27, 2013 15:40 IST
CBI,autonomy,coal block allocation scam

Absence of autonomy, I'm afraid, is not the only affliction the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) suffers from. Its handling of the Birla-Parakh episode suggests the rot runs significantly deeper. The parrot may be caged but it also seems to be diseased.

Reflect on a few aspects of the Parakh-Birla episode. First, if the CBI believes the two men are guilty of conspiring to allot a share in the Talabira coal block to Hindalco, then the conspiracy cannot be limited to just the two of them. At the very least it has to include the man without whose approval and authorisation the allocation could not have happened ie the prime minister.

Quite simply, the PM's endorsement was essential to convert a recommendation into a decision. It's therefore not just illogical, but impossible, to exclude the PM.

The facts revealed by the PMO's press release substantiate this. Kumar Mangalam Birla wrote directly to the PM on the May 7, 2005 and 18 days later that letter was forwarded to the coal ministry "to look into the matter." So the process began with Mr Birla approaching the PM, not coal secretary PC Parakh.

The press release also reveals that in accepting Mr Parakh's recommendation the PM did not simply sign on the dotted line, because this was a reliable coal secretary's advice, but exercised his judgement before doing so. The PM was, therefore, an integral part of the decision to allot Talabira to Hindalco.

Though monitored by the Supreme Court, the CBI either ignored this or was blissfully unconcerned by it. And the conclusion is damning. By limiting the alleged conspiracy to just two people it's either exposed the inadequacy of its investigation and analysis or the crippling cowardice it suffers from even when it has the Supreme Court's protection.

Second, and worse, is what the CBI did after registering the FIR. Literally two days later, in an interview to the Economic Times, its director, Ranjit Sinha, said the two men may well be innocent and could be exonerated. Clearly he lacks confidence in the action he had just taken. Then why did he take it? Now he's thrown grave doubt on the credibility of his own FIR.

Yet, bizarrely and sadly, this is not the end of the story. Two days after this interview CBI sources - what convenient nomenclature! - leaked to the Indian Express that they had suspicions about the allotment of coal blocks to two companies Mr Parakh joined over a year after retirement, and well after the end of the cooling-off period, and want to question him about these without explaining their doubts. This seems like an attempt to give the man a bad name. It smacks of mudslinging.

The CBI, however, is India's premier investigative agency. Should it be leaking like a sieve? Yet it does so all the time. Whispers in journalist ears are used to create a miasma of doubt and cast a shadow of suspicion over people who are not even charged and may never be found guilty. Even if, in the end, they are exonerated their reputation is often damaged.

I fear something is wrong with the very people who staff the CBI whilst there are serious questions to be asked about the way it conducts its affairs.

I'm not sure freedom is the solution to this parrot's predicament. I actually doubt if this bird has a future. We need an altogether new investigative agency. As Monty Python put it "This parrot is deceased"!

Views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Oct 26, 2013 23:54 IST