The NDA came to power on an anti-corruption plank, so one might have expected that its ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’ would be vigorously applied to the Augean Stables of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). For the last five years, the agency’s dirty laundry has been washed in public. The appointment of M Nageshwar Rao as interim director, while the dueling No 1 and 2 have been sent on leave, is unlikely to defuse the controversy.
The current crisis in the CBI is self-created and unlike dreary economic indicators, cannot be attributed to legacy issues or global markets. The BJP was the primary (and the Aam Aadmi Party the secondary) beneficiary of the anti-corruption movement which marked the decline of the decade-long Manmohan Singh regime. In keeping with its image, it should have taken steps to ensure the smooth and efficient functioning of the CBI.
In the run-up to 2014, the CBI contributed to the miasma of corruption hanging over the UPA. Two successive CBI directors appointed by the UPA were under a cloud. A P Singh, who headed the agency from 2010-12, was under suspicion because of his intimate links with meat exporter and alleged hawala racketeer Moin Qureshi. Nonetheless, he went on to become a member of the Union Public Service Commission. Ranjit Sinha, who had taken over from Singh, had been accused of abusing his power to scuttle investigations in the coal block allocation scam.
Six months into the NDA government, Sinha’s term as CBI director came to an end and Singh quit the UPSC (in 2015) after an Income Tax notice. Both these gentlemen were booked in 2017 by the agency they had once headed. Alok Verma’s appointment as CBI director in 2017 came as a bit of a surprise, as he was regarded as a rather ‘mild’ cop. He belied that image when the NDA insisted on promoting Rakesh Asthana to the post of Special Director, CBI. He objected vigorously, pointing out that Asthana was himself under investigation in the Sterling Biotech case (the pharma company owned by the Sandesara brothers, who have skipped the country after allegedly pulling off a massive loan fraud).
The government’s stand was vindicated when the Supreme Court dismissed a petition challenging Asthana’s appointment. It was clear that he was being groomed as Verma’s successor. Indeed, he had been made interim director in 2016 when Rupak Kumar Dutta, tipped to take over after Anil Sinha retired, was abruptly transferred out of CBI. Had it not been for Verma’s stubborness, Asthana might well have been elevated.
Regardless of whether there is a substantive case against Asthana, he was a poor choice of Special Director from the very outset. The CBI, as the country’s premier investigative agency, must be above suspicion. Any hint of corruption impacts the agency’s credibility and by extension, that of the incumbent government. The BJP had the opportunity to clean it up but chose, instead, to follow the UPA model of giving the benefit of the doubt to controversial officers.
The “optics” of the Asthana case are poor, making him a liability for the BJP. Firstly, he is said to be very close to BJP president Amit Shah and secondly, he was appointed Special Director over the objections of the incumbent director, on grounds of corruption. Third, he’s been booked for conspiring to close the Qureshi case. While the Prime Minister’s Office and the party may now distance themselves from Asthana, the damage has been done.
The Lutyen’s Delhi grapevine had heard of Asthana’s alleged shenanigans even before he was inducted into the CBI in 2016. Just as it knew of Singh’s connection with Moin Qureshi (dubbed ‘Kasai’, a derogatory reference to his meat export business). Likewise, Sinha’s relationship with agents of companies under the CBI scanner, notably the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG), was known.
Clearly, the CBI is in desperate need of an overhaul. One way to ensure that governments pick “clean” officers for the top posts is to change the appointment process. Currently, a search committee comprising the PM, Chief Justice of India and the Leader of Opposition selects the CBI director. This is an improvement on the previous method, which relied on the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) and senior bureaucrats.
In the interests of transparency, appointees to the top posts in regulatory agencies like the CBI and Enforcement Directorate could be subjected to US-style ‘confirmation hearings’. A committee of Parliament could hold public/televised hearings, in which the candidate is asked questions to establish his/her suitability for the post. Any conflict of interest would come out during such hearings, as would information to which the search committee may not have been privy. This may sound a tad drastic, but drastic measures are needed to restore public faith in the CBI.
The trouble with politicising a public agency is that it becomes a party to internecine political battles and this undermines its functioning. The Prime Minister must put an end to the Cop versus Cop drama, but also find ways of re-engineering the CBI so that it becomes capable of conducting impartial and efficient investigations.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.