A Lokpal with the CBI under it may not be a panacea for all our ills, but it is the first of many steps towards ushering in good governance
The recent Gauhati High Court judgment and K.M. Birla versus the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the coal allocation issue have once again brought to the fore Anna Hazare’s campaign for the Lokpal Bill — and, put the focus back on the autonomy, functioning and, now, the legal structure and very existence of the CBI. Anna Hazare repeatedly said he was not demanding a change of government as he believed that successive governments would be more corrupt. His aim was good governance and systemic changes. The Lokpal Bill with an autonomous CBI under its watch was one of them.
It is amply evident now — and Anna stands vindicated — that not only is corruption behind all scandals but is also at the root of all ills such as appalling poverty, malnutrition, dismal rural health care, etc. You fix corruption, you fix most things. Though very naive and simplistic, it makes sense.
The spate of scams that surfaced during the rule of the United Progressive Alliance — from 2G and coal allocation to AgustaWestland — have given rise to apprehensions on two counts. One, how can anyone trust a system in which those accused of corruption have to grant permission to investigating agencies to investigate them or their accomplices? And, two, the investigative agencies have to take orders from the very accused who control and manage them.
Anna’s demand was simple — create an ombudsman like the Lokpal which is independent of the government. He had one more non-negotiable demand — the CBI should be autonomous but under the ambit of the Lokpal to prevent the abuse of power. There is no point in having a toothless Lokpal which cannot initiate an investigation or ensure a fair probe.
In the cases relating to K.M. Birla and the former Coal Secretary, P.C. Parakh, the main issue has been lost sight of. When the CBI took time to act or looked the other way, it was accused of doing its masters’ bidding. When it acted against Mr. Birla and Mr. Parakh at the court’s behest, many corporate chieftains were quick to proclaim Mr. Birla’s innocence saying he was a respected industrialist. Retired bureaucrats sprang to the defence of Mr. Parakh, demanding how someone like him could be accused of malfeasance. How could they even be investigated? The CBI is being taken to task for making someone else a scapegoat for crimes that may have been committed in the Prime Minister’s Office and, by extension, people who control the Prime Minister, letting the high and mighty off the hook. The hapless CBI finds itself between a rock and a hard place.
The way the CBI has functioned all these years under successive governments and is now being stonewalled and made to go around in circles by the Coal Ministry to access crucial documents, lends credence to the generally held belief and the Supreme Court’s observation that the agency is a “caged parrot,” and strengthens the public perception that investigating agencies, both at the Centre and the State level, are usually hand in glove with the ruling party. And the CBI itself has confirmed this in its latest affidavit to the Supreme Court.
So the moot point is not if it is fair and proper to question Mr. Birla, Mr. Parakh or even the Prime Minister. It is whether the CBI is truly independent. Can it be expected to act fairly, objectively and without fear or favour? Does it have the autonomy and the necessary powers and resources at its command to question the powerful, regardless of their formidable reputation, if preliminary investigation points to them? How do we enable the agency to perform its functions with speed and prudence? Which constitutionally empowered body can ensure its autonomy and yet hold it accountable so that it does not run amok?
An opportunity for revival
But all this, while relevant, has now been relegated to the background in the light of the Gauhati High Court judgment which has questioned the very existence and legitimacy of the CBI. This may be an opportune time to enact a new law and breathe fresh life into it under the Lokpal Bill, taking into account diverse views and all aspects of its functioning under successive governments which have clipped its wings. In all western democracies, investigative agencies have undergone huge and numerous makeovers and evolved over a period of time. So, we need not be alarmed and denigrate the CBI. We need to set it free.
The Lokpal with the CBI under it may not be a panacea for all our ills but as Anna Hazare has said, it is the first of many steps and battles to be fought in a people’s movement to usher in good governance.
Here is a wild thought. Can Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi repeat his performance — of dismissing the ordinance to supersede the Supreme Court verdict on convicted legislators as “complete nonsense” and getting it scrapped? Can he now make bold to support Anna Hazare in ushering in a strong Lokpal Bill with the CBI under its oversight? With that, he will upstage Mr. Narendra Modi, turn the tables on both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his own party and its allies, and tilt to his side the aam aadmi, who seems to be drifting towards Arvind Kejriwal. It may be wishful thinking as only a few months are left for the general election. But if he succeeds, he will kill four birds with one stone.
(Capt. Gorur R. Gopinath is an entrepreneur and the founder of Air Deccan.)