What diminishing CBI jurisdiction entails

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is once again in the eye of the storm as opposition parties claim the federal agency is targeting them. Nine Indian states have so far withdrawn their consent to the CBI for prosecution in their respective jurisdictions and this month signals emerged that Bihar, which has recently seen a change of government, may soon be the 10th. Unlike the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which has a nationwide mandate to investigate terrorism-related cases, the CBI needs state consent to operate. As expected, most of those states that withdrew consent were run by parties opposed to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The distrust of a third of Indian states towards a central security agency underscores the weakening of the federal structure of the Constitution and the spirit of cooperative federalism.

Serious questions are emerging from the increasingly restricted jurisdiction of the CBI. Does it reflect the nature or quality of the investigation? Is this a purely political gesture in a bitter dispute between the ruling party and the opposition? What impact will this have on the “war on corruption”?

The CBI was established in 1941 by the colonial government to combat corruption in War Department and Supply Department transactions. Based in Lahore, its initial performance impressed the government, which extended its jurisdiction to railways and other departments. In 1963, when it emerged in its current avatar, it became known as a stellar anti-corruption organization.

While the role of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) came under scrutiny in the 1970s, the CBI maintained a clean record, winning success in crime control and investigation. It was former agency chief Joginder Singh who admitted he came under political pressure during his tenure in 1996-97 for slowing investigations into corruption cases that brought the CBI into the limelight. The impression was reinforced with the CBI’s ongoing case in politician-related cases, which had been dragging on, apparently due to extraneous considerations.

The CBI won opposition and public opprobrium for continuing to flip-flop on political matters at the behest of the Center. However, these cases do not even constitute 10% of its list of probes. The courts haven’t helped either. As of 31 January, 276 corruption cases had been pending before the courts for over 20 years (out of a total of 6,700 pending cases); 1,939 cases have been pending for 10 to 20 years. In this context, the CBI’s strong track record of achieving a 68% conviction rate in 2021, solving difficult cases, having the best forensic infrastructure and maintaining a high reputation in international cooperation pales in comparison.

The withdrawal of consent therefore does not speak to the quality of the CBI’s investigation and its group of exceptional officers, but rather reflects its leadership and the levers of control of the organization. CBI officers argue they are required by law to investigate complaints directed by the Center. However, it is unclear why much of the corruption cases target opposition leaders and how they are instituted at opportune times for maximum political gain. This, again, cannot be the reason for inaction since, in most cases, At first glance the evidence is clear even to the common man against the usual shrill cries of political conspiracy from the defendants and the opposition in chorus.

The CBI is mandated to fight corruption and must have jurisdiction over all of India, as the investigation of central departments requires interstate access. It will cause massive disruption and embarrassment if in such a case one state is on board while another is not. It has now become a norm that the CBI or state anti-corruption agencies do not take up corruption cases against members of the ruling party. This has earned the CBI titles like “parrot in a cage” or “Central Bureau of Investigation Against the Opposition”. Over the past two decades, some CBI leaders did not inspire confidence. Though selected by the trio of Chief Justice of India, Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, and backed by a fixed tenure, they meekly served the ruling dispensation and failed in as leaders.

The country must fight against corruption, and there is still much to be desired in this direction. Even the establishment of a Lokpal has so far not produced the expected results. States have done virtually nothing in this regard.

If the Center is serious about fighting corruption, it must make the CBI truly autonomous, allowing it to take on all cases of corruption across the country without favor or fear. It should have the status of an electoral commission with jurisdiction over the whole of India. The current control of the Central Vigilance Commission and the Ministry of Personnel brings nothing more to the organization. New legislation is imperative to grant India-wide jurisdiction and autonomy to the CBI. The current selection process should be eliminated. Each state and the Center are expected to nominate the top three names to the selection committee, which is expected to include a retired Supreme Court justice as chairman and retired Indian Police Service officers. The criterion should be integrity, professionalism, but above all, leadership skills. Since the organization will act on all complaints, free from political influence, in an impartial manner, neither party will have complaints.

This daily you may you may (back and forth) between the ruling party and the opposition over the alleged abuse of central agencies is costing our nation dearly. Indian democracy must move forward. Lawmakers must pause and reflect on the national interest and opt for a system of fair play and impartial justice. The CBI can do this if authorized to do so.

Yashovardhan Azad is Chairman of Deepstrat, former Central Information Commissioner and retired IPS officer who served as Secretary, Security and Special Director of the Intelligence Bureau Opinions expressed are personal

Thelma J. Longworth