What is the role of CBI in India

On 15 December 2015, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided the office of Rajendra Kumar, Private Secretary to Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, acting on a complaint of corruption filed by Ashish Joshi, who is serving as Member Secretary, Delhi Dialogue Commission.

The timing and manner of the raid evoked sharp reaction and protests from Aam Aadmi Party members, led by the Chief Minister himself, wherein he accused the CBI of acting at the behest of the Prime Minister and went onto calling the PM a ‘coward’ and a ‘psychopath’.

What was viewed by many in the government as routine investigation against a bureaucrat following a complaint, has now snowballed into a vicious slugfest between AAP and the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, relating to an unrelated case of corruption in the Delhi District Cricket Association. And now, BJP finds itself fending off an aggressive opposition in Parliament that has found yet another issue to stall house proceedings.

Role of CBI in the spotlight

While the justification of the raid is a matter of investigation, it does raise the question of CBI’s neutrality and the fact that it continues to remain a political tool at the hands of the ruling party, to be selectively used against individuals or parties, based on prevailing political convenience and equations.

On its part, CBI has always maintained that is a neutral body and follows an independent investigation within mandated parameters and without interference and influence from the government. However, in a strange irony, political parties while in opposition have been very vocal in supporting reforms that will ensure CBI’s neutrality but once in power, they all work to maintain ‘status quo’ of CBI’s present role and functioning. This was true for the Congress when it headed the UPA government and it is true for the BJP that heads the NDA government.

Is the CBI truly independent?

There is no doubt that CBI’s credibility as an independent and neutral investigating authority is seriously in question, based on past experience. This even prompted the Supreme Court to call CBI a ‘caged parrot’ that only ‘speaks in its master’s voice’.

Some controversial cases under CBI during the UPA regime

CBI and the Coal scam

CBI’s credibility as a truly independent body took a major hit when its ex-Chief Ranjit Sinha came under scanner for meeting several accused persons involved in the infamous coal allocation scam, at his residence. This prompted the Supreme Court to appoint a three member bench comprising senior judges to supervise the investigation into Ranjit Sinha’s role while investigating the case and whether it had any impact on the overall investigation. Irrespective of the outcome, CBI’s credibility has certainly been lowered.

Mulayam Singh’s disproportionate asset (DA) case

Acting on a PIL filed by one Vishwanath Chaturvedi in November 2005, the Supreme Court directed the CBI to investigate and see whether there was a prima facie case of disproportionate assets against Mulayam Singh, the Samajwadi Party supremo, his two sons, his first (late) wife – Malti Devi, and his daughter-in-law, Dimple Yadav.

The CBI in its report found prima facie evidence to pursue the case for disproportionate assets, however, with changing political dynamics as a result of Indo-US Nuclear deal, the Left Front walked out of the UPA and it was Samajwadi Party that extended support and saved the UPA government from collapsing.

On ‘advice’ from the government, the CBI then revised its earlier stand and said that since the wife and daughter-in-law’s assets could not be clubbed with those of Mulayam Singh as they didn’t hold public office, the DA case could not be pursued further. The Supreme Court directed the case against Dimple Yadav to be dropped but advised the CBI to continue to pursue the case against Mulayam Singh and his sons.

Interestingly, in the subsequent freezing of political relations between Congress and Samajwadi Party, the CBI again took a hard position on the DA case. BJP, at the time, was the loudest in protesting that CBI was being misused as a political tool.

Some controversial cases under CBI during the NDA regime

BJP-led NDA has been accused by the Congress and other opposition groups for misusing the CBI and influencing its investigation.

Amit Shah’s role in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake murder case

Congress has been leading the opposition to CBI’s role in letting off Amit Shah once the BJP came to power. The case is both sensitive, as it involves multiple government law enforcing agencies, and controversial due to the political nature of those involved. CBI’s credibility again stands questioned.

Jayalalithaa and the CBI

Over the years, Jayalalithaa has seen several cases against her pertaining to corruption and misuse of official power but CBI’s role of steeping up or down the pace of investigation is often based on prevailing relations between the ruling party at the centre and AIADMK. It’s no secret that Narendra Modi has been trying to win over Jayalalithaa and as expected, CBI is going slow on their investigation.

CBI and the Vyapam case

The murky case of examination and recruitment in Madhya Pradesh is often referred to as the ‘Vyapam Scam’ and involves several senior politicians, bureaucrats, and businessman, with investigation still underway. Several key witnesses and whistleblowers have lost their lives ever since the scandal broke prompting opposition parties led by Congress accusing the CBI for shielding the Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and his key associates. It remains to be seen how CBI proceeds in handling this investigation going forward.

Can CBI reclaim its original mandate as a credible and neutral investigative agency?

The answer lies with the ruling party and its ability to get all-party support in pushing for the long pending Lokpal Bill and ensuring that CBI is shielded from any government control or influence, and this must be constitutionally mandated. The CBI must be made answerable to the Parliament instead of the government. This is a prerequisite to ensuring that corruption has no place in governance or public life. It’s time to free the Parrot.