In order to give meaning to his reassuring words on the role and duty of the premier investigation agency, the Prime Minister will need to assert himself against many who would not want an autonomous CBI.

“… It [the CBI] has always to do what is right and correct. For an investigating agency, there can be only one guiding beacon, only one gold standard, and that is the law of the land. Whoever transgresses it, however mighty, has to be brought to book.”

Those were bold words indeed from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who also said on April 30, after inaugurating the new building housing the headquarters of the Central Bureau Investigation (CBI) in New Delhi, that the CBI should act without fear or favour. The premier criminal investigation agency needed more physical space to work in and a more congenial work environment for its 5,000-plus staff members. It has now got this reward after decades of hard and sustained labour under trying circumstances.

Nobody will ever grudge more facilities being given to the CBI to enable it to discharge its duties. Its workload has increased phenomenally over time: more than a thousand new cases are entrusted to it each year, and there is a huge backlog in courts in various parts of India. A larger workforce, and more tangible incentives for its officers to cope with the burden and proceed methodically with the work, are legitimate dues. The governments headed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) have been more than generous in this respect, and both need to be complimented for their vision.

However, every government has its own resources crunch and cannot go on spending lavishly to buttress a criminal investigation agency. At the same time, lack of money should not prove to be a limiting factor, for the CBI needs to be made a top-class outfit that is on a par with the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States. Anything less does not match India's image as a growing force in the comity of nations. Subjecting the CBI severely to bureaucratic prescriptions of effecting economy in administration will be preposterous and disastrous.

The Prime Minister's assurance that his government would be generous in giving the organisation what it needs is gratifying. It is to be hoped that his top babus would not lag behind and that they would be forthcoming in implementing their leader's promises. It is known to many how a Secretary to the government can sabotage with impunity what his Minister promises.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that he would like to see a sleek CBI that acts without prejudice and avoids harassing innocent persons. These are words of wisdom that should influence even operatives at the lowest level in the agency and convince the people that despite occasional aberrations, the UPA government means well by the organisation. It is easy to be critical of the Executive for its efforts — often subtle, sometimes blatant — to influence the CBI's decisions in sensitive cases. The fact is that no political party is without blame in trying to arm-twist the CBI Director. Let us therefore not point fingers to indict this or that government as being more guilty of the obnoxious and questionable tactics that go with the pattern all over the world, of the Executive arm of the government trying to subjugate investigation agencies to suit its own caprice and will.

On its part, the CBI also has to do a lot of introspection and some spring-cleaning with regard to its internal processes in order not to give ammunition to its tendentious detractors. The one stick with which the agency is often beaten relates to its tendency to prolong investigations. The charge is not without basis. This is somewhat analogous to the accusations against the judiciary for not doing enough to speed up trials.

The apparent sloth in this area is explained by several factors. These include the non-availability of critical documents, non-receipt of expert opinion on the genuineness of documents, audio-video recording, and samples collected at the scene of a crime. Another factor is indolence on the part of Ministries in according permission to the CBI to initiate an enquiry/investigation and in sanctioning prosecution of a public servant once the CBI has garnered enough evidence to prove guilt.

Perhaps the most unjustified and deplorable among the fetters imposed on the CBI is the infamous ‘single directive,' which found legal sanctity under the NDA government in 2003 through incorporation in the Central Vigilance Commission Act. (Under this Directive, the CBI needs the permission of the Ministry concerned before undertaking even a Preliminary Enquiry against an officer of and above the rank of a Joint Secretary.)

Equally relevant is the prolonged correspondence with foreign governments and courts in cases that require investigation on external soil. The Bofors investigation is a classic example. A whole book can be written on how, in this instance, red tape and protocol issues helped neutralise solid evidence of guilt and greed, built up over a decade through assiduous investigations.

There are many similar impediments that come in the way of the CBI being able to complete its investigations swiftly, especially in sensitive cases. If the CBI still managed to file two charge sheets recently in the 2G spectrum scam investigation, it is a tribute to its perseverance and hard-work. (No doubt, Supreme Court monitoring was earlier the prime mover that set off positive responses from the CBI.)

This does not, however, mask the fact that some CBI officers at all levels are themselves prone to lethargy. Fortunately, the number of such officers is not too large. This writer knows for a fact that supervisory officers of the CBI are driven hard to quicken the process of investigation in many cases, and a provision for periodic stocktaking by the Director himself is built into the system. The CBI owes it to society to speed up all its investigations, whether they are major or minor, by cutting out traditional requirements that do not have legal sanction.

In a number of cases, far too many witnesses are being examined and far too many documents summoned than are required. The agency has a well-equipped computer system, and this has to be harnessed to the maximum so that manual methods of storing and retrieving crucial data are jettisoned. Technology is not only the answer to subjectivity, but a tool to facilitate expeditious handling of matters that are intimately linked to a fair investigation.

None of this will, however, eliminate the widely held suspicion that the CBI is the handmaiden of the ruling party or alliance. This is why there is a clamour to free it from the dictates of the Executive. The Prime Minister said that the current crop of sensitive investigations (it was an obvious reference to the 2G spectrum scam, the Adarsh Society affair and the CWG scandal) would constitute a litmus test for the CBI.

The citizens of India will apply the same test to the Prime Minister in the matter of conferring near-total autonomy to the CBI. While the agency will depend on the government for logistic support, it will be accountable only to the law (read the Supreme Court and the High Courts), and no one else, in investigating cases and sending up the accused to the courts for trial.

Ensuring this will require the enactment by Parliament of a clear-cut CBI Act, a draft of which is being done by the CBI. (Several such drafts are languishing at the CBI headquarters or in North Block, for want of a political will.) If the elusive institution of the Lokpal does ultimately come into existence, the CBI ought to become a part of it to supervise its investigative functions. The Leader of the Opposition should also be involved in the choice of the Director of the CBI, just as in the case of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner. Finally, it should be laid down that for five years after retirement a CBI Director shall not be eligible for any post to which the appointment is made by the government. This will greatly enhance his capacity to take a totally independent position, especially during his last days in office.

From what he said at the agency's new headquarters, there is no paucity of ideas for the Prime Minister to mull and implement. For this, he will have to assert himself against so many, both within his party and in the Opposition, who will not want an autonomous CBI. Posterity will judge Dr. Manmohan Singh on this issue, among many other issues that are critical to restoring decency in public life.

(The writer is a former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.)

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