The Real Meaning Of Freedom
While the apex court has declared that the “first exercise” would be to liberate the CBI from political interference, real autonomy will also need freedom from administrative, legal and financial controls, also exercised by different ministries. Governments aren’t inclined to loosen the leash because “politicians aren’t here to do dharam-karam”, says ex-CBI director Joginder Singh.
- Financial autonomy: Typically, the CBI’s annual budget is 30 per cent less than what it proposes. Most of it is spent on salary and establishment; less than two per cent is earmarked for modernisation. The director can’t even reallocate funds without govt approval.
- Functional autonomy: In Dec 2012, as many as 1,176 CBI posts were vacant. The govt is sitting over proposals to amend recruitment rules for over a year. The SC is hearing a PIL to allow direct recruitment.
- Autonomy for prosecution: The CBI’s director (prosecution) is posted by the law ministry, which retains authority to clear appeals and revisions. For anti-corruption cases, the agency requires sanction from the Central Vigilance Commission. Sanction for prosecution is denied in over 60 per cent of the cases involving bureaucrats, often without citing any reason.
- Administrative autonomy: The CBI director can’t send sleuths abroad, decide on the members of the team or duration of their stay on his own. Approvals are to be obtained from home, finance and DoPT.
The courtroom drama and the CBI’s confession of pliability in the coal block allocations scam highlights its lack of autonomy once again. It’s an old story. In 1999, Trinath Mishra, then acting director of the CBI, sent sleuths to the office of Dhirubhai Ambani of the Reliance Group with a search warrant. He chose not to inform people that matter in the government before carrying out the search. Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was prime minister, and his deputy, L.K. Advani, were both unaware of it. Within ten days, Mishra was given marching orders. But he was unfazed, declaring that there was no reason to wait for permission when he and his men believed there was enough reason to search a premises.
Old-timers at the CBI office recall the Mishra incident with relish as a storm rages over current director Ranjit Sinha’s admission in court that he had shared with Union law minister Ashwani Kumar, “as desired by him”, the status report that the agency later submitted to the Supreme Court on the coal scam on March 8. Speculation was that Ashwani, perceived as close to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, intervened on his behalf, for the prime minister had held the coal portfolio for some time and therefore was under a cloud in the Coalgate controversy.
Now for the key questions. Should Sinha have refused to entertain the minister? Could he have done so? And if Mishra could defy the political executive without a security of tenure, why couldn’t Sinha, who has a fixed tenure of two years (till 2014-end)? Officers at the CBI’s headquarters answer them with another question, asked in all seriousness: did Draupadi have any option but to accept all five Pandavas as husbands? The CBI, they say, has as many masters, if not more. The department of personnel & training, under the PMO; the ministries of home, finance and law; the Central Vigilance Commission—all of these exercise varying degrees of control. “It’s all well for the Supreme Court to rap us on the knuckles and say the CBI should not be guided by the political executive, but the fact is that the agency has too many bosses and can’t ignore them,” a joint director says.
But Sinha’s meeting with the law minister on March 5 was in a different league altogether, legal experts say. The Supreme Court has been hearing arguments on a PIL seeking cancellation of all coal blocks allocated to private companies between 2004 and 2009. The PIL also wants the court to set up and monitor a special investigation team (SIT) to probe the allocations. The government faces allegations of cronyism, and the law minister looking at the investigation report amounts to an accused taking a look at his investigating officer’s report. Sinha, says a former CBI director, should have politely refused to give the minister the report. Government spokespersons, however, offer a different argument. The Supreme Court, they say, is yet to order a court-monitored SIT. Therefore, the minister did not exceed his brief, they argue. They also say the government was entitled to see there was no “misrepresentation”, since it had provided files, notings and other material for the probe. Contrary to reports in the media, no joint secretary from either the PMO or the coal ministry was present at the meeting, they say. The status report, they add, contained no names, and the changes made were “minor and superficial”, involving bullet points and “altering phrases”. These claims will be put to the test in the Supreme Court next week, it could end up embarrassing the prime minister.
Unlike the CAG or the CVC, the CBI isn’t an autonomous body, so, shocking as it sounded, Sinha’s famous line—“I’m not autonomous; I am part of the government.”—isn’t off-target. He had added that he’d not shared the report with an outsider but with the law minister of the country. He’s to file an affidavit on May 6, which will be heard on May 8. Acknowledging that the statement was misplaced at a time when the apex court was talking of liberating the agency from the government, the CBI hurriedly clarified that what Sinha meant was that the CBI did not exist in isolation and had to consult others.
While the CBI and the government grappled with semantics, the mood within the agency seemed one of high expectancy. The director was said to have told colleagues that he didn’t mind being pulled up by the court if its directives would benefit the CBI in the long run. Will the apex court take this opportunity to ensure greater autonomy for the CBI (see box) or miss the opportunity by again offering homilies, strictures and censure? The question is being discussed most avidly within the agency.
Meanwhile, the grapevine buzzed with talk of a leading industrial house, also in the dock in the coal allocation scam, trying to manipulate the CBI and the law ministry. Insiders speak of a sensitive file related to the industrial house being scrutinised at the law ministry. “What you see in the media is part of a corporate war, an attempt to ease out the law minister, signal the CBI to go slow and force the government to go soft,” says one government functionary. The speculation gathered strength with Ashwani telling Congress leaders that the meeting with the CBI chief was set up by attorney-general Goolam Vahanvati, believed to be friendly with the industrial house. This was apparently because there was a conflict of opinion between the attorney-general and additional solicitor-general Harin Raval. Referring to the leaked letter written by Raval, who resigned the day after shooting it off, a government spokesman came up with this poser: Isn’t it strange that there is so much fuss over the solitary file seen by the minister in his office while there is deafening silence over the nine files related to the coal scam that the attorney-general asked to be sent to his house?
This is not the first time, though, that the CBI shared its findings with the government or the law minister. “Normally, a more suave minister would have invited the director to have a cup of coffee after dinner and taken the opportunity to speak his mind,” confided a CBI joint director. But by all accounts, Ashwani was abrasive, even abusive, by some accounts doing the rounds, and dismissive of the “poor English” used by the agency.
Many in the CBI are now pinning hope on the Supreme Court for unshackling the premier investigating agency from government control and the leashes in the hands of political masters.