CVC - quo vadis?

``BE YOU ever so high, the Law is above you'' is the common refrain in some of the judicial pronouncements of the Supreme Court. The members of the higher judiciary are no exception to this dictum. It is therefore surprising that in a recent symposium held in the capital, the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), Mr. N. Vittal, gave vent to his feelings of despair by saying that he would like to leave the judiciary ``severely alone'' in his crusade against corruption in public life. He referred to the Contempt of Courts Act's protection to the judiciary. While it is true that judges can take action against personal allegations of corruption against them, it is not as though they are above the law.

The applicability of the Prevention of Corruption Act (PC Act) to the judges was examined by the apex court itself in what has come to be known now as Justice Veeraswami case (K. Veeraswami vs. Union of India 1991(3)SCC 655). Justice Veeraswami, the then Chief Justice of Madras High Court, was charged under the PC Act for owning assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. When the trial court took cognisance of the charge, Justice Veeraswami approached the High Court to quash the proceedings of the trial court on the plea that he could not be charged under the aforesaid Act. The High Court rejected his plea but gave him leave to appeal to the apex court as he had raised substantial questions of law. The Supreme Court by a 4-1 majority judgment held that the PC Act was indeed applicable to the judges of the High Court and the Supreme Court also and put the matter back to the trial court for proceeding with the case according to law. The above case was heard by a five-judge Bench presided over by the then Justice B. C. Ray.

The matter again came up for consideration in the apex court in a slightly different context in Vineet Narain vs. Union of India, 1997(7)SCALE 659, a public interest litigation, alleging inertia by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in matters where accusations were made against high dignitaries in what has come to be known as Jain diary cases involving allegations of vast payments to various high ranking politicians and bureaucrats.

Judicial remedy

As pointed out by the court, the focus was on the question whether any judicial remedy is available in the context of allegation of inertia and the need for an `innovative' procedure permitting judicial intervention within the Constitutional framework. The apex court examined the legality and validity of the so-called Single Directive issued by the government which required prior sanction of the designated authority to initiate investigation against the officers of the government/public sector executives/nationalised banks above certain decision- making levels like Joint Secretaries to government or their equivalent or above.

The government through the Attorney-General sought to justify this Single Directive on the ground that officers at the decision-making level need protection against vexatious or malicious investigations into the honest decisions taken by them. It was however stated before the court that this directive acted as restriction only on the CBI and doesn't deter the state police to register and investigate under general law i.e. Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr. PC). The Attorney-General relied on the decisions of the apex court in two cases viz. State of Bihar& ors vs. J.A.C Saldanha & ors 1980(1)SCC 554 and K. Veeraswami supra. The court ruled that the Single Directive could not be upheld as valid on the ground of its being permissible in exercise of power of superintendence of the Central Government under Section 4(1) of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act 1946 under which the CBI came to be constituted and accordingly quashed the Single Directive.

The court therefore examined the matter before it, de hors the Single Directive and considered the recommendations of the independent Review Committee set up by the Central Government earlier on the need for insulating the CBI from external pressures or influence of any kind in its initiation and investigation of cases against public men and bureaucrats.

The court felt that it was indeed its constitutional obligation to formulate suitable directions to streamline the constitution and functioning of the CBI, till such time the ``legislature steps in to substitute (its directions) by proper legislation.'' On this basis, the court gave detailed directions for the constitution of the CVC, CBI Director and the Enforcement Director of the Finance Ministry including their selection and the manner of appointment, and also gave direction regarding the setting up of nodal agency and prosecuting agencies and their functions. The present CVC and the CBI Director were appointed and at present function in terms of these directions of the apex court to achieve total insulation of these agencies from external influence and uninhibited functioning.

Constitutional status

It is almost three years since the aforesaid directions of the apex court are in place, but Parliament has not so far brought in the necessary legislation for the constitution, status, powers and functions of these important agencies. One of the directions of the apex court is that the CVC shall be given a statutory status. The government can, in fact, even go beyond this direction and give the CVC a constitutional status as in the case of Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and the UPSC. In fact the CVC has a wider and more onerous role in respect of senior civil servants and public servants including politicians. Another aspect in the reconstitution of the CVC is the attempt to make it a multi-member body. The tendency to make statutory and constitutional bodies as multi-member bodies started with the Election Commission when the Narasimha Rao Government made it a three-member body as a result of its anti-Seshan syndrome. The CVC has to mainly oversee and review the progress of all cases moved by the CBI and perform all the functions within the jurisdiction as notified in the government resolution dated February 11, 1964, which still holds good.

These tasks of the CVC cannot be debated and voted upon in a multi-member setup. It is therefore necessary to review the need to have a multi-member Central Vigilance Commission. It will not be fair to continue the existing setup of the CVC and other agencies indefinitely when the Supreme Court itself had made it clear that it had to step in only to provide the interim arrangement to shake the CBI of its alleged inertia and to make it perform effectively without any external influence. It is time that Parliament enacted suitable legislation to fulfil the expectations of the people which are so well reflected in the apex court's directions.