It’s not the nature of the changes made, but the very act of changing that is at the core of the controversy over the Central Bureau of Investigation allowing the Law Minister and the Prime Minister’s Office to go through the draft status report on the probe into allocation of coal blocks. As the CBI submitted in its affidavit before the Supreme Court on Monday, no names of suspects or accused persons were removed from the status reports at the suggestion of the government. But the question of propriety in sharing with the political executive the details of a case in which the government’s own actions are suspect still remains. That the officers of the CBI worked into the status report some of the suggestions from the government is deeply worrying, even if, as the CBI director maintained before the court, the “central theme” of the report had not been changed. Moreover, the changes are significant even if these had no direct bearing on the criminal culpability of the suspects and the accused. Besides the deletion of a finding about the screening committee not having prepared any broadsheet about applicants for the coal blocks, what went missing in the report before the court was also a line on the legality of allocations while amendments in law were in the process of being taken up. A reference to the absence of a weightage system in the allocation of blocks also did a vanishing act in the final report.

Even if these changes do not alter the “central theme” of the report, surely questions are bound to be asked about whom these changes would benefit and on what the rationale was for their original inclusion and their later exclusion. The CBI’s defence, if it can be called that, about only the draft report being shared, and not the final report submitted in a sealed cover to the court, is rather lame. If indeed the suggestions made by the political executive were incorporated after the vetting of the draft report, it is no consolation that the revised report was not again shown to the government. Surely, the CBI will also have to answer questions on the nature of the changes sought by the government, and whether some of the changes sought were too serious and damaging to the larger case to be incorporated into the status report. If there is anything at all to cheer about in this sordid episode, it is that the Supreme Court might sense the need to guarantee the CBI the institutional freedom and autonomy it needs to carry out independent investigations, especially in cases involving political corruption. Otherwise, the CBI can do no more than strain at the leash. And the government might just tighten its hold.

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