A blundering CBI needs a Parliament oversight panel

The dust is slowly settling down on the controversy over the CBI raid a few days ago on the Stalin and Alagiri household in Tamil Nadu.

It came just a day after the DMK withdrew support to the UPA government. This was ammunition enough for the DMK top brass to cry foul. They knew enough of the Central Bureau of Investigation’s track record as not to keep mum on what they considered an outrage against the South’s premier political party. The CBI’s stand that the assailed action was a routine matter, and done according to procedure established by law has not cut much ice with the political class, especially those in the Opposition.

For once I am with the government when it says that it did not have anything to do with the episode. This is because the operation was so crude that no intelligent government could have been party to it. Or was there an unseen hand behind the whole episode which was bent upon embarrassing the government? In any case what happened last week in Chennai confirmed the apprehensions about how independent the CBI was.
I have been for long a crusader for the CBI’s total autonomy so as to invest some credibility in that pre-eminent investigating agency. This is because it is to the CBI that both the judiciary and the common man look up for succour whenever gross injustice is perpetrated on individuals or when persons in authority put their hands into the till which they are expected to guard. I am beginning to be convinced that the battle for an independent CBI has been lost.

Just as in the case of the Lokpal there is hardly any consensus on letting the CBI operate on its own so that there is fear among those who violate the law. No political party or coalition is a saint when it comes to misusing the  CBI. The difference is only with regard to the degree of misuse. As I said elsewhere, some governments are less saintly than the others who have some conscience not to violate the sanctity of criminal investigation.
 Having lost hopes that in my lifetime I will ever witness an autonomous CBI, I would now like to pitch for the next best. Why not set up a Parliamentary oversight committee that would monitor CBI’s overall performance? This is the minimum that a democracy can settle for in its endeavour to cleanse the criminal justice system, at least partially. This is not the same as Parliament overseeing the Department of Personnel to which the CBI is attached.

Infrastructure support

This committee will not be entitled to supervise or comment on current investigations. Apart from ensuring that the CBI gets enough infrastructure support from government, the committee would be authorized to look into a few past investigations by way of a specimen, and examine whether there has been any gross failure or negligence in any particular case, especially one which had invited judicial ire.

On the face of it the concept may seem fuzzy and impractical. In course of time however it could acquire focus. A lot will depend on the quality of the composition of the committee. Those chosen should be equipped with an understanding of how criminal investigations are regulated by law. They should also be men and women who have a track record for objectivity despite their political predilections.

When I look around, despite my cynicism of the political class, I can identify a sizeable number of MPs, both in government benches and in the Opposition, who have the right image and mental make-up to undertake this sensitive exercise of keeping the CBI on rails without it bending to the government’s unreasonable and unethical demands. This is a delicate and daring experiment. Only time will tell whether this would work. But then if nothing is done quickly to protect the CBI from political machinations its already modest reputation will sink further. With signs of political instability hovering around the polity, the CBI’s role could become murkier.

There is yet another controversy that has enveloped the CBI in the past few weeks. This is the appointment of a former CBI director to the Raj Bhavan in Nagaland. Many observers have reacted sharply to this saying that this was one blatant attempt to buy the loyalties of future directors. The criticism is not ill founded even when good retired officers are favoured with a gubernatorial assignment. It is firmly believed that such carrots could influence serving officers looking for post-retirement jobs in favour of a government steeped in difficulty.

Under the existing dispensation a director has only a two-year mandatory tenure. This is measly if one considers that the FBI director in the US has a ten-year appointment. My suggestion is that a CBI director should have five-year tenure, with the caveat that he will not be entitled to a post-retirement job in government unless he cools his heels for a minimum of five years.

This is about the only way you can prevent a CBI chief from succumbing to any desire to favour a government so as to secure a post-retirement job. This is a practical solution to a problem that looms large and which cuts into CBI’s neutrality. Again, to implement this, we need a political consensus, which is just now elusive and has become a rare commodity.

(The writer is a former CBI director)

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