In the midst of World War II, British rulers in India found that the spiralling war expenditure had opened new avenues for public servants to siphon off public money. They realised that the existing police machinery was not capable of unearthing malpractices and came up with a Special Police Establishment in 1941 to deal with corruption and bribery in transactions connected to the War and Supply Department. Later, independent India, too, felt the need for a central agency, which would investigate cases of corruption as well as financial frauds and violation of central fiscal laws among others. It built on the 1941 order, which in the meantime saw several changes and improvements, to set up the CBI in 1963. Since then, the CBI has been at the receiving end, for its omissions and commissions.
Adding insult to CBI's injury is the latest 2G verdict, where the special court rejected every single claim of the investigating agency and freed all those accused of corruption and causing loss to the exchequer. This is not the first time that the CBI has had egg on its face. Whether it is Bofors scandal, the fodder scam, coal scam, the Jain diaries, Lakhubhai Pathak case or the disproportionate assets cases against Hindi heartland leaders, to name a few, the CBI has always been found wanting. The March 2008 Parliamentary Standing Committee report on 'Working of CBI' acknowledges that there have been "big events or scams rocking the nation" where the CBI is said to have restored public faith in the system. But it goes on to add that whether CBI has been able to fulfil the expectations of the public and its legal mandate is debatable.
"There has been erosion in the confidence which the public reposed in CBI on certain matters," it said. The situation has not changed in the last nine years. Indeed, one could say it has worsened over the years, with even the Supreme Court describing CBI as a "caged parrot". Then CBI Director Ranjit Sinha was even taken off the supervisory role in the 2G investigation for having discretely met several people under the agency's scanner at his residence!
What ails the CBI is no more a complex question, as these instances have already shown. The officialdom would point to shortage of quality investigators, the burgeoning vacancies and the rising number of cases it is being entrusted with for the state of affairs. But one of the biggest reasons why the CBI fails is political interference and the lack of functional autonomy. The Supreme Court judgement in the Vineet Narain case (1997) amplified it. Inertia of the CBI was a recurrent theme in the judgement. "Inertia was the common rule whenever the alleged offender was a powerful person," the SC observed in the landmark verdict.
A close reading of the 2G verdict would show how CBI fell into inertia. The special CBI judge notes the growing lack of enthusiasm in the prosecution and the investigating agency as the trial proceeded. The 1997 judgement also points to a general impression gaining ground that the central agencies are subject to extraneous pressures and have been indulging in "dilatory tactics" in bringing the guilty to book. It also talks about the need for a proper prosecution to follow a proper investigation. Some 20 years have gone after the verdict, the situation remains the same. The Vineet Narain judgement had laid down the norms to protect the integrity of the central agencies like CBI and Enforcement Directorate, but successive central governments have sabotaged it.
Using CBI for political gain or purposes is not just one party's sin. The entire political system participates in it, using their favourites posted in the agency. If there was no appeal in the Bofors case, there was no appeal in the acquittal of BJP president Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, either. While a Congress government derailed Bofors, the CBI did not bother to appeal against Shah during BJP rule. However, within hours, the CBI was ready with a decision to appeal against the 2G verdict.
There is an urgent need for the CBI to reclaim its credibility. People may still demand a CBI inquiry into murder cases, but they have stopped trusting the country's premier investigating agency when it comes to cases of corruption by the high and the mighty.