Moving forward

A set of suggestions made by a Group of Ministers(GoM) headed by finance  minister P Chidambaram on giving more independence to the CBI may be a step forward.  The proposals are to be submitted in an affidavit to the Supreme Court this week. It was after some trenchant comments by the court and a directive to take immediate steps to free the investigative agency of official control that the government moved to set up a GoM. The affidavit, which has been cleared by the cabinet, will also go to a standing committee of Parliament. All the details of the proposals are not known yet.  But some, which have been made public, may address some concerns about the working of the CBI. But they have also raised some questions.

The CBI needs to have both financial and functional autonomy. At present its expenses have to be sanctioned by the government at the secretary level. The proposed package gives the CBI director the power to directly draw the funds required by the agency. This is as it should be. It is proposed that the CBI director would be selected by a three-member collegium comprising the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and the chief justice of India. This is fine, but the judiciary might later face an awkward situation if an appointment approved by the CJI is challenged in a court. An oversight panel of three retired judges has been proposed to supervise and oversee investigations. But its legal status is fuzzy though the government claims it has looked into the matter. As the law stands now, only the CVC or the courts have the power to monitor the agency’s work. The proposals are also silent on the demand for revocation of the ‘single point directive,’ which mandates government’s permission for investigation of any official above the level of a joint secretary. This requirement has long been considered as hurting operational autonomy.

The proposals show that the government has moved forward from a state of denial, refusal and recalcitrance  over the demand for independence of the CBI, obviously under duress. But just by themselves the proposals may not be enough to ensure proper functional autonomy for the agency. They also need clarification. While there is the need to free the investigative body of political or official control and dictation, it is also necessary to maintain its accountability to legitimate democratic structures. The task is not easy.

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