In a fit of candour quite uncharacteristic of those holding high office, CBI Director Ranjit Sinha said on Tuesday afternoon what everyone knows to be the truth about the autonomy and independence of India’s premier investigation agency. “I am a part of the government, I am not an autonomous body,” he blurted out when asked for his reaction to the Supreme Court expressing its disappointment and anger at the fact that the CBI had allowed the political executive to vet its status report in the coal scam probe. As the political, legal and moral significance of Mr. Sinha’s fatal confession slowly became apparent, he sought desperately to press the reset button. In a clarification issued at night, the investigative agency said that what its Director had “wished to express” was that the “CBI does not exist in isolation. We are part of a system and need to consult and take opinion on certain occasions.” So low is the credibility of the CBI today that the authorship of this clarification is itself suspect. Did Mr. Sinha realise he had mis-spoken? Or did the government, of which he is a part, decide his words were highly impolitic and needed erasure?
Of course, the scandal that has enveloped the Manmohan Singh government as a consequence of this shameful episode will not go away with a press release here or a clarification there. At stake now is not just the question of how much money was made by whom in the preferential allocation of coal blocks over a number of years but the integrity of the CBI, the offices of Attorney General and Additional Solicitor General, and, by extension, the very edifice of the rule of law. On the basis of information that is now in the public domain, it is clear that the CBI was happy to have its investigation report vetted and amended by the Union Law Minister and bureaucrats from the PMO and Coal Ministry — the very offices whose decisions were being probed. It is also clear that both the AG and ASG misled the Supreme Court on this issue. And despite being pulled up by the court, the CBI Director still believes he did nothing wrong. The ASG has already resigned and the AG, the Law Minister and now the CBI Director will come under legitimate fire. Mere resignations, however, will not rescue the ship of state from the inner corrosion which has occurred. If the UPA is to have any hope at all of containing the damage, it must agree to think afresh and apace about how to make the CBI genuinely autonomous. Perhaps it is time to revive the proposal to make the agency function under the supervision of an independent Lok Pal. The Supreme Court has declared its intention of liberating the CBI from political interference. It made a start with its Vineet Narain directions 15 years ago. It is now time to finish the job.