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Look Over The Shoulder

Why did the CBI chief flout all norms to ambush Laloo?

Look Over The Shoulder
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DATE: April 27, 1997; time: 3.15 pm. A shrill ring of the telephone at the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) reception suddenly tears into the quiet of a soporific Sunday afternoon at the capital's CGO Complex. Two assistant sub-inspectors on duty, rudely awakened from their afternoon siesta, scramble to the third floor to open up the director's office. Within 10 minutes of the call, the deserted driveway to the tree-lined Block 3 comes to life: two white Ambassadors screech to a halt and Joginder Singh, director, CBI, strides to his office. Close on his heels are trusted aides, superintendent of police H.S. Sandhu, and PRO S.M.Khan.

The rest is history. Within half-an-hour, news of the CBI's decision to prosecute Bihar chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav and others in the animal husbandry scam is flashed across the national network. And as a tremulous UF government battles the reverberations from the agency's latest move, which is almost a political one, the country is left wondering about Joginder's motive. For, he showed no indication of this manoeuvre when he flew back from Patna on April 25 or even when he hosted a farewell lunch for additional director L. Revanasiddiah the next day. But as events show, there was a sense of urgency; a sudden development which forced Joginder to take a decision, after months of dilly-dallying. And make the agency's internal matter public. "It was a rearguard action," Joginder is supposed to have told colleagues in the CBI and the Home Ministry. The comment was interpreted thus—that the CBI chief was merely trying to safeguard his position, thwarting any move to shunt him out.

This time round, the odds were definit-ely against Joginder: Congress president Sitaram Kesri was gunning for him—and had brought up the Joginder topic in various meetings with Prime Minister I.K. Gujral; a pro-active bench in the Supreme Court is hearing the case against Joginder for contempt of the Patna High Court orders; and attempts by cadre-mate and special director D.R. Karthikeyan to dislodge Jogi-nder and take his place had ruffled the CBI chief.

The last of these forces at work—referred to as the "K" factor in CBI circles—probably propelled Joginder to take drastic action. Despite his many attempts to meet the prime minister, Joginder had been denied time; Karthikeyan, on the other hand, reportedly had a telephonic talk with Gujral on April 26, and was subsequently summoned for a meeting on April 28. Joginder, perhaps, was also aware of the fact that Karthikeyan, as first secretary at the embassy at Moscow, had worked closely with Gujral for two years.

Perhaps what strengthened Karthi-keyan's chances were his notings on the file forwarded by joint-director U.N. Biswas from Laloo territory. While Biswas had categorically sought Laloo's prosecution, Karthikeyan chose to remain evasive, seeking "further investigation". And what clinched the issue was Joginder's own insecurity—this despite the fact that a proposal to initiate departmental action against Karthikeyan for leaking vital information to the press under the Official Secrets Act had been cleared.

But Joginder's compulsions apart, there were political forces at work as well. Joginder is reported to have discussed the matter with mentor ex-information & broadcasting minister C.M. Ibrahim. The decision suited Deve Gowda too, whose antipathy towards Laloo is well-known.

Throwing caution to the winds and circumventing the convention of informing the prime minister or the minister in charge of the Personnel department, under which the CBI functions, Joginder swung into solo action.

While a formal note seeking Laloo's prosecution has not yet been sent to the governor, the political damage is done. Joginder, on his part, has struck back at dissenters with a vengeance. On April 29, he forwarded an internal memo to Karthikeyan, ordering him to be stationed at the CBI headquarters. Then, DIG R.M. Singh was promoted as joint-director of the Special Investigation Team, Chennai, to supervise the Rajiv Gandhi trial. Both moves are being regarded as Joginder's attempts to clip Karthikeyan's wings, who has till now claimed he is indispensable in the assassination probe.

For Laloo, Joginder's volte-face has been a let-down. It is learnt that prior to this sudden turnaround, Joginder had entered into a tacit pact with the chief minister. His brief: to differ from Biswas and send the file to the attorney-general for an opinion, as laid down by the Supreme Court. But Joginder, obviously, changed tack somewhere down the line.

The CBI chief has won this round. But on the way, he flouted norms and didn't bother to inform the government of his action. This doesn't bode too well.

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