It is a happy turn of events that there is, at last, a kind of truce between the Central government and the Anna Hazare Team on the Lokpal issue. Both sides have displayed a measure of maturity that augurs well for the future of public life in India. The stage is now set for some animated but objective discussion of the law that will concretise the idea of a strong ombudsman. It is not enough for the two sides to say that they are for a credible Lokpal. They need to go the extra length to accommodate each other's sensitivities. Otherwise things will be back to square one. This is why a lot of importance should be attached to the meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee scheduled in the next few days.
The Anna Team's focus is rightly on the status of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the future scheme of things. With all its faults — some real and many imaginary — the CBI is still the best bet to strike at the venality that marks public life in India.
To say that politicians alone are guilty of corruption, an impression given by the Anna Team, is greatly skewed. Civil service misdeeds are equally enormous and cannot be ignored. Take, for instance, the recent arrest of a senior Income Tax Department official who allegedly demanded a sum of Rs.50 lakh to overlook the suppression of unaccounted income by a company. Instances are legion of top officials of enforcement agencies asking for a bribe without any sense of shame or fear. The magnitude of corruption in the Central government departments is mind-boggling, and this is why we first need an effective anti-graft machinery at the Centre, rather than in the States. The corruption in the States could be tackled subsequently. If the Lokpal is unable to cut at the roots of the civil servant-politician nexus in promoting dishonesty, it would have hardly justified its creation.
The ushering in of a Lokpal should in no way dilute the CBI's legal authority or its operational effectiveness. This should be the starting point for any discussions of the Standing Committee. A former Union Minister, referring to the plea for total autonomy for the CBI from the Executive, asked this writer some time ago as to who exactly the organisation should be answerable to if it wants to be autonomous — particularly when monitoring of all CBI cases by the judiciary was impractical. This query by an otherwise well-meaning public figure summarises the political perspective of the whole issue of the CBI's autonomy. It reveals the unconcealed desire of the average politician to somehow retain at least a semblance of control over the CBI.
It is generally known that the senior bureaucracy is also not exactly unhappy with the current state of affairs wherein the CBI is under the thumb of the Department of Personnel. Perhaps the most significant move that came in 2003 was the insertion of Section 6A in the Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE) Act, 1946, making it mandatory for the CBI to get prior government permission before it can even proceed with a preliminary enquiry (PE) against an official of and above the rank of Joint Secretary. This was a dubious amendment to the Act, based on the specious ground of saving civil servants from needless harassment by the CBI. But it amounted to deliberate emasculation of an organisation that requires teeth to tackle public servant corruption. The provision has been questioned in judicial forums as violative of the fundamental right of citizens to equality before law. Let us hope that this issue is resolved soon in favour of maintaining the integrity of the public services.
It is against this backdrop that the Anna Team's demand to bifurcate the CBI, attaching its anti-corruption wing with the proposed Lokpal machinery, should be examined. This is ostensibly in order to remove the organisation from the clutches of the Executive. The rationale is unexceptionable. The practicality of the proposed arrangement is, however, highly debatable.
The CBI does not operate with any watertight compartmentalisation of its numerous wings. No doubt there is a distinct Anti-Corruption Wing functioning at its headquarters. In the field units the distinction is, however, blurred. There is a pooling of resources at all levels when a major case, invariably a sensational conventional crime, is investigated by the CBI at the request of a State government or on the orders of a court. This will no longer be possible if a large chunk of the CBI representing the anti-corruption staff is removed and tagged on to the Lokpal. The current top brass of the organisation are reportedly opposed to such an arrangement, which would deny them the substantial manpower needed for non-anti-corruption work. The CBI's resources are already quite slender, making it difficult to cope with the nearly 1,000 cases registered by it each year and about 7,000 cases that are on trial.
Following the Vineet Narain judgment (1997) by the Supreme Court, the superintendence of the CBI's anti-corruption work is with the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). This is a nominal arrangement which has worked reasonably well, because we have had some non-interfering and mature Central Vigilance Commissioners, and an equally responsible and self-effacing CBI leadership. Under an aggressive and egoistic CVC this arrangement could have become untenable. If, however, you want to disturb this stable state of affairs with a view to yielding to the demand of the Anna Team, the whole process of transition will have to be carefully conceived and worked out.
As one who has headed the CBI, I am totally against any dismemberment of the organisation. That would cause more harm than good to the objective of rooting out corruption. If the Lokpal becomes a reality, the most sensible thing to do would be to transfer the existing authority of superintendence of the CBI from the CVC to the Lokpal. Any other arrangement would result in the creation of two separate investigating agencies, namely, the CBI, and the small unit envisaged for the Lokpal. That would lead to confusion and a clash of functions. Along with such empowerment, the Lokpal could be conferred the authority (that currently vests with the government) to sanction the prosecution of public servants. This can be done by suitably amending Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 and Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. The power enjoyed by the government under Sections 377 and 378 of the CrPC to deny or accord permission to the CBI to go on appeal or prefer a revision petition against the orders of lower courts could also be vested in the Lokpal. It should be remembered that we have been witness to totally political decisions in such matters. Finally, the entire budget allocation for the CBI could be placed at the hands of the Lokpal, so that the CBI enjoys freedom from any tendentious holding up by government of sanctions of money required for its day-to-day running and implementing its long-term projects.
All these suggested moves may be viewed as being too drastic. But, then, without them the CBI will remain tied to the apron strings of the Executive. The former Chief Justice of India, J.S. Verma, must be a disappointed man. His bold judgment in the Vineet Narain case was aimed at insulating the CBI totally from political caprice. If, however, in the public perception this has not materialised, both the organisation's leadership and the executive will have to bear the cross.
The opportunity that is currently available to improve the image of the CBI through a thoughtful fusing of the agency with the Lokpal should not be frittered away. A lot of magnanimity on the part of the current Executive is called for. At the same time, the role of the media and the citizenry at large in bringing enough pressure for a reform of the system can hardly be overemphasised.
( Dr. R.K. Raghavan is a former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.)