What is it with the Central Bureau of Investigation that it must make headlines, all for the wrong reasons? On Tuesday, the head of the nation’s premier investigating agency found himself dragged into an unseemly public controversy when a leading lawyer alleged that he was not-so-secretly meeting people connected closely with the accused in the 2G scam. The implication was clear: Ranjit Sinha was soft-pedalling serious criminal charges against a major corporate house allegedly involved in the scam.

Prashant Bhushan, an Aam Aadmi Party activist and a lawyer for the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, alleged in the  Supreme Court that officials from the corporate house arraigned in the 2G scam had visited Sinha’s official residence on several occasions, a fact, which he claimed, could be verified by the visitors’ register kept at the CBI Director’s house. Sinha’s counsel vehemently denied the allegation.  But Bhushan stuck to his charge. Whatever the truth in the charge, the fact that the media extensively reported it is bound to damage Sinha’s public image. Hopefully, Sinha would appreciate that even white lies uttered from a public platform travel far and wide and invariably end up damaging the person these are meant to vilify or condemn. Therefore, his own sorry plight at the hands of the activist-lawyer Bhushan might persuade him to think long and hard about the flawed approach the CBI has followed all these years in bandying about half-cooked charges against all manner of people. In particular, we can refer to at least two cases where, the CBI on its own admission, went horribly wrong. And without offering an apology, without being contrite, it did ruin the well-preserved honour of two respectable people. The first case concerns the retired Coal Secretary, P C Parakh. The agency dragged him into the vortex of the coal scam without having an iota of evidence. It said that he too had misused his position to make discretionary allocations of coal blocks to undeserving parties. Now, nothing could have been farther from the truth.

For, it was Parakh who had written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, strongly proposing that coal blocks should be auctioned. Parakh, in fact, had a running battle with one of the coal ministers, who insisted on allocating coal blocks on wholly extraneous grounds. But the CBI thought nothing of initiating a preliminary inquiry against Parakh, who, by then had retired in Hyderabad and was engaged in writing his memoirs. The CBI stoutly defended its PE even as an angry Parakh countered the suggestion that he was complicit in the coal scam. The second case too is linked to the coal scam. The CBI went to town registering another PE, this time against the widely-respected industrialist, Kumar Mangalam Birla. It said Birla had wrongly represented for the allocation of a captive coal block for a power plant owned by one of his companies. And that Parakh had gone out of the way to grant the same. The CBI rushed to slap the PE without considering the demand for a captive mine in its proper context. It was clear that the ‘thanedar-SHO’ approach had led the CBI to smell a scam while all that Birla and Parakh had done was to dovetail the official policy with economic  pragmatism to successfully make a case for  a captive coal mine. Anyway, after dangling the charge of wrongdoing, the agency has told the apex court that there was no case made out against the two.

The clean chit, however, does not undo the severe mental and reputation harm suffered by the  two. How does the agency compensate them for the mental agony they suffered all these months? At the very least, the agency should offer a public apology, even if the law, as it exists, does not envisage any payment of punitive damages to the victims of CBI’s lackadaisical approach. It is undeniable that under Sinha the CBI has indeed gone from bad to worse, wanting to drop seemingly open-and-shut cases, such as the one against the Maran brothers, or seeking to allow Lalu Yadav to go scot-free in the fodder scam. There are other cases of bungling against the Sinha-led CBI. Suffice it to say an assured tenure of the CBI head is no guarantee that he will not end up doing his own arbitrary thing, unmindful of all objective criterion. A remedy must be found to ensure that the CBI does not behave in a wayward manner, tarnishing carefully preserved reputations. Maybe the first step is to penalise the errant officers with a downgrade in service and pension benefits. Is Sinha ready for this deserved penalty for his proven lack of leadership of the apex investigating agency?

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