CBI in the sunlight

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It has been a winter of discontent for the CBI. An incumbent director was excoriated by the Supreme Court. A former director is under a shadow for keeping company with people of doubtful reputation. Its closure reports in key cases have been rejected by courts. Its officers have been faulted for poor marshalling of evidence and delays. Several key questions are staring at the CBI, on credibility, accountability and commitment to transparency, among others. To reduce the recent developments to the aberrant behaviour of a few individuals is to turn away from issues vital to the CBI and its future. The nation’s premier investigating institution is strong enough to face the stark truth.

The country’s institutions were systematically and ruthlessly weakened during the Emergency. Some recovered but many could not. Something changed almost permanently. The political class dropped all pretence of allowing institutions to discharge the functions for which they were established. No longer coy about using the institutions’ powers for political advantage and to cause fear in adversaries, they seemed to have taken a leaf out of Machiavelli’s famous dictum —  a prince was better off feared than loved. The politician had acquired the power to save the dishonest from the consequences of their actions as well as to demoralise the honest by setting the CBI on them. What about the CBI’s functioning discomfited the honest?
Transparency is now universally acknowledged as a requisite for a well-governed, professional organisation. But the CBI has demonstrated a strange unease about transparency. The ostensible reason was that it needed to protect itself from prying eyes so that it could perform its professional duties. But was that the real reason? Or was it that the CBI needed the cloak of secrecy to ward off uncomfortable questions about the way it worked?
The politician was only too willing to oblige. By letting the CBI operate in secrecy, he was keeping a powerful investigating agency in good humour, and his relationship with the agency under wraps. Secrecy allowed him to weaken or delay cases against political bigwigs and key allies, reopen old cases against adversaries, help well-heeled suspects elude the reach of law, start investigations against intrepid, independent-minded civil servants on flimsy grounds and charge long-retired civil servants with misdemeanours, taking the heat off politicians.
The removal of the CBI from the remit of the RTI Act was the culmination of this collusive action. At some point in this entire process, the professionalism of the CBI had come under serious strain. The recent indiscreet behaviour of its director is only the surface manifestation of a malaise whose roots lie deeper. How is it that the CBI director is not afraid of being held accountable?
Possibly, he was complacent that secrecy would prevent revelations about his actions. He was also confident that no one would hold him accountable for his move to close cases, until he was surprised by the sense of duty displayed by the government’s lawyers. To call this an aberration, as some commentators have tried to do, is to sweep the dirt under the carpet. Accountability is an important hallmark of a professional institution. It would be interesting to know whom the CBI is answerable to. In all corruption cases, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) has superintendence over the CBI. But the CVC’s superintendence stops short of investigations and prosecutions. With court after court castigating the CBI for inept investigation and prosecution, who enforces accountability and ensures that things get better? Each year, the CBI starts a large number of “discreet enquiries”, some of which are converted to “preliminary enquiries” (PEs). The CBI website says nothing about the cases that have not been put through a PE. We cannot be sure if the CVC even knows about them, as they do not figure in its annual report to Parliament. With such unscrutinised freedom to work, it comes as a surprise when the CBI demands more autonomy. Such a demand would be a lot more persuasive if the CBI had a demonstrable record of adhering to higher norms of accountability and transparency, without which autonomy is nothing more than a demand for the divine right to do wrong. Secrecy and weak accountability are the bane of the CBI. The sooner its leaders address these concerns the better it will be for the organisation they all serve, with legitimate pride. The writer is a former secretary, ministry of personnel, and former chief information commissioner – See more at: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/cbi-in-the-sunlight/2/#sthash.LhgECbSn.dpuf
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