What CBI’s shrinking jurisdiction implies
Nine states have already withdrawn consent to the agency. This mistrust is not good in a federal structure. If the Centre is serious about fighting graft, it must make the CBI truly autonomous
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is in the eye of the storm again as Opposition parties allege that the federal agency is targeting them. Nine Indian states have, so far, withdrawn consent to the CBI for prosecution in their respective jurisdictions and, this month, signals emerged that Bihar, which recently saw a change in government, could soon be the 10th. Unlike the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which has a nationwide mandate for investigating terrorism-related cases, the CBI needs consent of the states to operate. As expected, most of such states that withdrew consent were ruled by parties opposed to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Distrust in a central security agency by a third of India’s states underlines the weakening federal structure of the Constitution and the spirit of cooperative federalism.
Serious questions emerge from the CBI’s shrinking jurisdiction. Does this reflect on the nature or the quality of investigation? Is this purely a political move in a bitter feud between the ruling party and Opposition? What fallout will it have on the “war against corruption”?
The CBI was set up in 1941 by the colonial government to fight corruption in transactions of the war and supplies department. Headquartered in Lahore, its initial performance impressed the government, which extended its jurisdiction to the railways and other departments. By 1963, when it emerged in its present avatar, it became known as a stellar organisation for fighting corruption.
While the role of Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) came in for scrutiny in the 1970s, the CBI maintained a clean record, notching up successes in crime busting and investigation. It was former agency chief Joginder Singh’s admission that he came under political pressure during his tenure in 1996-97 for slowing down investigations in corruption cases that brought the CBI into the limelight. The impression gathered strength with the CBI’s ongoing record in cases related to politicians, which dragged on, apparently due to extraneous considerations.
The CBI earned opprobrium from the Opposition and the public for continuing its flip-flop on political cases at the behest of the Centre. However, such cases do not constitute even 10% of its probe roster. The courts have not helped either. As of January 31, 276 cases of corruption are pending in the courts for more than 20 years (out of a total court pendency of 6,700 such cases); 1,939 cases are pending for 10 to 20 years. Against this background, the CBI’s good record of securing a 68% conviction rate in 2021, cracking difficult cases, boasting of the best forensic infrastructure and maintaining a high reputation in international cooperation pales into the background.
The withdrawal of consent, therefore, does not speak of the quality of investigation by the CBI and its outstanding group of officers, but reflects more on its leadership and the levers of control on the organisation. The CBI’s officers maintain that they are bound by law to probe complaints directed by the Centre. However, it is not clear why a large chunk of corruption cases targets Opposition leaders and how they are instituted at opportune moments for maximum political gain. This, again, cannot be the reason to not act since, in most cases, prima facie evidence is clear even to the common man against the usual shrill cries of political conspiracy coming from the accused and the Opposition in chorus.
The CBI is mandated to fight corruption and needs to have all-India jurisdiction since the probe relating to central departments needs interstate access. It will cause massive disruption and embarrassment if, in one such case, one state is on board while another is not. It has now become a norm that the CBI or state anti-corruption agencies do not take up corruption cases against the ruling party members. This has earned the CBI titles like “caged parrot” or “Central Bureau of Investigation against the Opposition”. In the last two decades, some CBI chiefs did not inspire confidence. Despite being selected by the trio of Chief Justice of India, Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition, and bolstered by a fixed tenure, they served the ruling dispensation meekly and failed as leaders.
The country must fight corruption, and there is much left to be desired in this direction. Even the setting up of a Lokpal has so far not produced expected results. The states have hardly done anything in this regard.
If the Centre is serious about fighting corruption, it must make the CBI truly autonomous, enabling it to take up all cases of corruption across the country without favour or fear. It should have the status of the Election Commission with all-India jurisdiction. The present oversight by the Central Vigilance Commission and the ministry of personnel adds nothing of value to the organization. New legislation is imperative to accord all-India jurisdiction and autonomy to the CBI. The present selection process should be scrapped. Each state and the Centre should nominate the three best names to the selection committee, which should comprise a retired Supreme Court justice as chairman and retired Indian Police Service officers. The criterion should be integrity, professionalism but most importantly, leadership skills. Since the organisation will act on all complaints, free from political influence, in an unbiased manner, no party will have complaints.
This daily tu tu mai mai (back and forth) between ruling party and the Opposition over the alleged misuse of central agencies is costing our nation dear. Indian democracy needs to move ahead. Lawmakers need to pause and think in the national interest and opt for a system of fair play and even-handed justice. The CBI can just do that if allowed to.
Yashovardhan Azad is chairman, Deepstrat, a former Central Information Commissioner and a retired IPS officer who has served as secretary, security, and special director, Intelligence Bureau The views expressed are personal