Even as GoI finally intervened by appointing Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) joint director Nageshwar Rao as interim director with immediate effect on Wednesday, the great ruckus that blew open the ramparts of India’s premier investigative organisation over the last few days is far from over. Apart from some political quarters objecting to Rao’s appointment on the grounds that there are ‘many complaints’ against him, others have also challenged the government’s legal right to ‘remove’ CBI director Alok Verma, who, along with his antagonist, special director Rakesh Asthana, were sent on leave the same day.
The current spat has, at one level, quickly snowballed into an organisational crisis for the CBI. At another level, however, it also reflects a series of failures on the part of GoI. The manner in which the events have unfolded indicate problems that go much beyond just factionalism. The CBI’s alleged politicisation, serious charges against its various chiefs, its very poor conviction rate, its delays in carrying out timely investigation, not to mention its lack of core competence and domain knowledge, are indicative of a much more serious malaise.
In the face of numerous accusations and counter-accusations, GoI, on the recommendations of the Chief Vigilance Commission (CVC), appears to have rightly decided to intervene. This should have been done much earlier.
The allegations made by the officials must now be investigated expeditiously. And depending upon the results of the inquiry, decisions should be taken on whom to retain and whom to not. If there is evidence of misconduct or wrongdoing — including that of making false complaints — that, too, should be investigated and action taken as soon as possible.
From the organisation’s point of view, however, one way out of the current predicament is to start afresh with a new set of unbiased leaders. This may help the process of rebuilding the CBI.
Past governance crises in our country — such as the one relating to foreign exchange in 1991— have shown us that these present as much of an opportunity for improvement as they pose a threat for the future. If the CBI is not to suffer more failures in the times to come, it has to reform itself.
The origins of the CBI’s problems can be traced back to 1941when it was set up in its earlier avatar as the Special Police Establishment to investigate cases of bribery and corruption in the then-Department of War and Supplies. In 1946, it was rechristened the Delhi Special Police Establishment. Since then, its writ began to extend to all departments of the central government.
In 1963, the CBI was given its present name. Since then, it began to exercise its jurisdiction not only over government departments but also over public sector banks and undertakings as well.
Even as its functions expanded, it failed to equip its personnel with the new skills needed to perform their jobs competently. This is one reason why the CBI’s conviction rate is so poor. To deal with organisations performing diverse decision-making functions, investigators should at the very least be able to understand the nature of these decisions and the circumstances in which they are taken.
A police officer responsible for maintaining law and order, and investigating conventional crime, is unsuitable for this role, unless substantially retrained. But, even more importantly, the CBI — just like its counterpart in the US, the FBI — should now convert itself into a multidisciplinary corruption-fighting force with experts from diverse fields such as finance, banking, purchase, procurement, insurance and engineering.
Lack of adequate skills has led to other failures, many seriously affecting the CBI’s credibility. This has now been reflected in the latest Verma-Asthana spat, which could have been sorted out if both sides had shown administrative acumen without going public.
Lack of domain knowledge leads to the exercise of poor judgement. All too often, officers cannot distinguish between a substantive offence and a mere irregularity. The latter, as the Supreme Court pointed out, in the case of ‘Major SK Kale vs the State of Maharashtra’, is exactly that — an irregularity. In the absence of any corroborative evidence, there is no reason for presuming criminal intent.
For the same reasons, a similar problem arises when officials cannot distinguish between non-exemplary conduct and misconduct. Failure to achieve excellence does not mean that one must presume the worst. The failure to follow these principles benefits those who are corrupt in the organisation and harms those who are honest.
Some of the allegations of corruption being hurled about in the current spat are pretty old. Perhaps the present crisis could have been averted if these had been investigated much earlier. One serious charge, levelled against the CBI —and, indeed, all investigative agencies in this country — is that they take too much time to investigate a case. As a result, there is almost negligible deterrence against any crime.
The current situation of the CBI is another timely reminder that, as a nation, we must improve the functioning of our institutions. The historical trajectory of a country is often determined by the quality of its institutions.
(The writer was chief commissioner, income tax)