CBI is nothing more than its political master’s slave

Last Updated 27 October 2018, 20:50 IST

The story is so tediously repetitive that you wouldn’t know when you first heard it. It goes like this: the nation is gripped by an outrageous scandal, protesters take to streets, the media screams repeatedly, several high-profile people are arrested, CBI steps in, and a special court is put in place.

What happened next is what you often did not bother about. A few years later, the dust around the scandal settles down, and the CBI goes to court, either with an apology of a charge-sheet, or sometimes telling the court that it couldn’t find any evidence at all.

India, meanwhile, has moved on. Another political-bureaucratic-business nexus has subverted the system, and a new scandal emerges in public. The cycle repeats itself.

For the past few decades of public life, this has been the template. And that is fundamentally the track record of CBI, at least as far as high-profile political cases are involved.

Read more: Midnight coup at the CBI: yet another institution falls

It was the case with the Bofors scandal, the Hawala scandal, and with more recently the 2G scandal. On occasions when people do not pay much attention, such as investigations into arms deals, the agency tells the court that it has no evidence to substantiate its own earlier claims. In one case, what the CBI claimed in its FIR to be kickbacks for an arms dealer from Israel, was later termed as commission for selling kitchenware. And the CBI closed the case without charging anyone. Nobody bothered to ask if the arms dealer sold us kitchenware.

In many ways, the CBI is a metaphor for modern India, this chaotic democracy that is adrift in an amoral political sea. It is symbolic of every other institution in India — indeed, it is almost not an institution, its institutional character and strength, or whatever remains of it, being eroded daily. Normally, it is nothing more than the handmaiden of the devious political forces in power.

To understand the crisis gripping Indian democracy, you only need to take a closer look at the CBI. A dispassionate academic assessment of the ‘premier investigation agency’ will show that it is actually a poor police force perpetually hijacked by those in power to settle scores. It is neither premier, and definitely not much of an investigation agency.

According to official statistics, the CBI has a conviction rate of around 70%. Government data presented in Parliament last year claimed that its conviction rate dipped to 66.8% in 2016 from 69.02% in 2014. Like most government statistics of the day, it is an outright lie -- yet another jugglery with data.

The facts are appalling. In 2012, then vigilance commissioner R Srikumar pointed out that an internal study by the CBI had shown that its conviction rate is a shocking 3.96%.

He told a gathering of Lokayuktas that the CBI analysed 264 corruption cases over five years concerning 698 accused, of whom 486 were central and state officials while 212 were private persons. “While it took more than 13 months to conclude the investigations, only 8 out of 698 persons who were initially called for questioning in corruption cases were convicted, a dismal 3.96 %,” he lamented.

However, the CBI and the government tends to fool around with data to cover up the real face of CBI. Even if only one out of 10 accused in a case is convicted, officially it is a successful conviction. Petty cases involving bribes paid to junior government officials and humongous scandals like 2G both have same weightage in CBI’s measure of its success.

The conviction rate, actually, is a reflection of the larger dishonesty plaguing the institution. In fact, it is time we asked that simple question: Is CBI an institution at all? What are institutions?

There are several frameworks to understand institutions, and the global consensus is that institutions have to be stable, with recurring patterns of behaviour, upholding a set of rules, written or oral.

Formal institutions, while they transcend individuals and are identified with a purpose, are shaped by individuals.

Look at the CBI. What are the recurring patterns of behaviour? At least two of the recent chiefs and many officers have been accused of conspiring with alleged criminals or trying to subvert the law. The government has now accused the present chief, the third one in recent times, of wrongdoing. And the chief, in turn, has alleged that his deputy is involved in criminal activities. Though the CBI Is often compared to America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, it doesn’t have its own loyal cadre of officers, who identify the right values with CBI, the institution, and stand up for it. It could well be one reason why many of its officers are allegedly involved in subverting it -- because they have no loyalty to CBI.

The CBI today is a top-heavy agency, with IPS officers on deputation running the show. And they have over the years set a certain pattern: you serve the political masters, who will decide if you get to stay on in the CBI.

Your merit and investigative skills don’t really matter. What matters is if the central government, especially the Prime Minister’s Office, is pleased with you. That is the entry pass into CBI.

In contrast, look at FBI. Over 13,000 special agents of FBI form the backbone of that organisation, and many of these special agents spend their entire career on the field, investigating crimes while rejecting more lucrative and peaceful office positions even within the FBI.

The CBI does not have any such cadre. An effort to build up CBI’s own cadre of officers has been repeatedly stymied, and the legal fight to give the existing few cadre officers better professional avenues is still stuck.

In the meanwhile, CBI continues to be run by people on deputation, from IPS officers to junior rank people.

In 2012, an informal estimate done by some CBI insiders showed that of the 63 IPS officers then serving with the agency, the vast majority were posted in their home states.

This makes the entire top brass of CBI, which is 100% IPS, susceptible to political and other kinds of pressures. For example, a Tamil Nadu-born IPS officer, who is serving in Haryana cadre, will manoeuvre his way to get a posting with the CBI in Tamil Nadu.

The present crisis in the organisation is symbolic of the deep malaise. It is time to rebuild the CBI, bring it under strong, bipartisan parliamentary oversight, and give it an institutional character. Until then, it will be no more than a manipulative arm of the immoral political masters running the country.

(The writer is a senior investigative journalist and author of ‘A Feast of Vultures: the Hidden Business of Democracy in India)

(Published 27 October 2018, 18:58 IST)

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