CBI: Every govt’s best ally

CBI: Every govt’s best ally

West Bengal Chief Minister and All India Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee speaks during a protest against the recent raids by India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), in Kolkata on February 5, 2019. (Photo by STR / AFP)

When in power, every party wants the CBI to be a ‘caged parrot’. Out of power, the country’s premier investigating agency immediately turns into the same party’s favourite whipping boy. Functional independence is one thing that is absent in the CBI under any regime. The agency dances to the tune of those occupying Raisina Hills, where the Prime Minister’s Office is located. The proverbial Damocles’ sword hangs above opposition party leaders every time the government is in trouble or an election nears or it needs numbers to get a legislation passed in Parliament. The latest episode of this role of the CBI was seen last week in Kolkata, where the Narendra Modi-led Centre and Mamata Banerjee-led state administration locked horns over the CBI’s bid to question Kolkata’s top cop in chit-fund scam cases.

It was an ugly mess. A posse of CBI officers attempted to swoop down on the official residence of Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajiv Kumar on February 4, a Sunday and the last day in office of the controversial former interim director and current additional director of CBI M Nageshwar Rao. The Kolkata police rounded up the CBI officers and took them to a police station. Then the CBI sought to arrest the city police personnel, but it had to call in the CRPF to protect its own officers. At the political level, no less than the chief minister of the state Mamata Banerjee sat on a dharna outside Rajiv Kumar’s residence against the CBI action, her target being Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without whose instructions Nageshwar Rao would not have acted in such a manner. In unprecedented scenes, Rajiv Kumar and other IPS officers joined Mamata’s dharna, and so did political leaders from across the country – from the DMK’s Kanimozhi to RJD’s Tejasvi Yadav to TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu; Rahul Gandhi, Omar Abdullah, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal, et al, sent messages of solidarity with Mamata. The opposition stalled Parliament over the issue, while the BJP accused them of aligning with the corrupt.

The matter went to Supreme Court. The top court told the CBI to produce evidence that Rajiv Kumar had indeed destroyed evidence in the chit-fund scams as the agency had alleged. When it could not provide evidence, the top court told the CBI it could not arrest Rajiv Kumar, but at the same time instructed him to appear before the CBI and answer its questions. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs has asked the West Bengal government to initiate disciplinary action against Rajiv Kumar and even wants to withdraw police medals of five senior officials, including the Director General of Police, and deny them central deputation for participating in the dharna. Banerjee has announced that she will sit in on dharna in New Delhi starting February 13 to highlight the misuse of the CBI by the Modi government against political opponents. Opposition leaders are expected to join her in a show of strength.

But the buzz in Delhi is that there will be more such actions ahead of Lok Sabha elections to corner the opposition parties. The only way for opposition leaders to avoid CBI or Enforcement Directorate action, it is said, is to do what former Trinamool Congress leader Mukul Roy and former Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma did: join the BJP and turn on your former party. Roy and Sarma were also accused in the infamous Narada and Saradha scams and the CBI went after them, too, earlier. But after they joined the BJP, they are on the safe side. Sarma, who was questioned and whose house was raided in 2014 joined the BJP in 2015, and has not been bothered by the CBI since; similarly, Roy has not faced heat either, opposition leaders point out.

If proof be needed of the way the Modi government has used the CBI to go after opposition leaders while saving its own leaders from probes, they say, just look at the clean chit given to former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan; or BJP chief Amit Shah being discharged in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case; or mine baron Janardhan Reddy being freed from the CBI’s clutches ahead of the Karnataka assembly elections last year.

It is not that only the Modi government has used the CBI to further its political goals. It was political folklore that during the UPA regime, whenever it needed votes in Parliament, the cases against Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav and BSP supremo Mayawati were dusted out and then put back in the almirahs once the job was done. But the intensity and intent of this government, which has a majority of its own and so does not need a Mulayam or a Mayawati to vote along with it in Parliament, the opposition perceives, is not designed to merely arm-twist but to destroy all opposition forever. A set of CBI officers, some of them brought in and placed in the agency by this very government, appear all too willing to do its bidding.   

That has created a divide in the agency and in fact led to the bitterest factional feud in the agency, which finally led to the sacking of its director Alok Verma, who was at loggerheads with the government over his action against his deputy Rakesh Asthana, who is considered close to Modi and Amit Shah. Asthana was also shifted out of the CBI last month.

As the Lok Sabha elections near, and Modi and the BJP have felt the heat of a gathering opposition alliances, especially in Uttar Pradesh, the CBI is finding itself ever more useful to the government. Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav, for instance, is suddenly facing an investigation in an illegal mining case from over four years ago, although his name does not figure in the CBI FIR, which was itself registered last month soon after he sealed an alliance with Mayawati’s BSP. That alliance is expected to hugely dent the BJP’s poll prospects in Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 MPs to Lok Sabha. In 2014, the BJP had won a whopping 71 of those seats but has since lost three in bypolls for which SP and BSP had come together.  

Opposition leaders also point to sudden haste with which the government has been acting in cases against AAP, RJD, Congress and Trinamool Congress leaders. In the chit-fund scam cases, the parties point out that the CBI did nothing in the past five years, but suddenly woke up to the case to interrogate the Kolkata police commissioner, seen as being close to Mamata Banerjee, just ahead of elections, even as the Modi-Shah duo eye Bengal for its 40 LS seats. In fact, in October, a prominent Bengali newspaper had outed an audio clip of a conversation between Mukul Roy and BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya in which the former tells the latter that to tell Amit Shah that the CBI should go after four senior IPS officers to scare them.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, the Modi government and the CBI are in no hurry to pursue long-pending cases against YSR Congress leader Y S Jaganmohan Reddy. After all, he is a potential ally.