The Taming of the Sleuths

In spite of corralling evidence against the accused in high-profile cases, the CBI seems reluctant to file charges. Can it wrest control from its political masters?

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

Recently, the Central Bureau of Investigation Director Ranjit Sinha ordered an inquiry against his own officials. He was upset after a team that had raided the residential premises of Neeraj Singhal, Vice President of Bhushan Steel, didn’t arrest him, despite Sinha’s explicit orders. Singhal was in the CBI’s crosshairs after the apex investigating agency exposed the CMD of Syndicate Bank, SK Jain, accepting a bribe to settle a loan that Bhushan Steel had borrowed from the bank. Jain was promptly arrested. His appointment is also under review, while officials from the Finance Ministry may come under a probe for a possible mala fide element in Jain’s appointment to the bank’s top job.

The high profile arrest is just one among 27 cases that the CBI is probing against banks and private firms that have been sitting on bad loans of Rs 70,000 crore. Jain’s prompt arrest was possible after the recent Supreme Court verdict that struck down the earlier mandatory provision of seeking prior government sanction before arresting any official of a rank of joint secretary and above. Meanwhile, Singhal, too, was nabbed later on Lodhi Road, less than a mile away from the agency’s headquarters. This sense of urgency has only arrived after the new government took over.  

Does this mean the caged parrot—the Supreme Court’s epithet for the agency handling the coal scam probe—is flying free again? One sparrow does not make a summer, and surely it would make little sense to read too much into the Syndicate Bank case. But there are several high profile cases where, after the initial excitement, the investigating agency has been somewhat shy to take the case forward.

CBI ambivalence towards these cases is not just due to the inability to find clinching evidence, but the way its resolve is routinely broken by political influence or persuasive powers of the fixers that abound in the capital.

A case in point is Moin Qureshi, whose networks and proximity to the CBI bosses, including Sinha, were used to allegedly bend investigations to suit corporate houses that had been probed for their involvement in scams. There are horror stories of the CBI top brass allowing key accused in many scams to breathe easy.

Despite attempts by SC to free the CBI and allow it to live up to its motto of “industry, impartiality and integrity”, the agency has been succumbing to pressure from not just political masters, but corporate interests, as well.

It was during the Jain Hawala scandal of 1996 that the SC decided to lay down rules to ensure the agency was made immune to political interference. The CBI chief was given a fixed tenure of two years and was expected to report to the Chief Vigilance Commissioner. Save for security of tenure to the chief, the other points pertaining to CBI’s independent functioning have come a-cropper.

One reason for the de-legitimisation of the Congress-led UPA government was the rise in the number of mega scams and CBI’s inability to investigate with independence. When people stepped onto the streets, they were not just demanding the ouster of the government, but also for an agency that would not kowtow to political pressure. The CBI was rudely dubbed the Congress Bureau of Investigation. The BJP was at the vanguard of the attack against Congress, as it was coming to grief due to the probe into Hindutva terror. However, the loudest noise was made by India Against Corruption (IAC), which wanted the appointment of a Lokpal so that the political executive had no say in matters of investigation and prosecution. The agitation for the establishment of a Lokpal and Congress’ agreement to a watered-down version is now history, but what is still not clear is how the CBI will conduct itself in the new political environment. Will the agency be freer now than in its poodle-of-the-Congress days? These questions acquire urgency, as the CBI is probing cases that involve key figures in the current dispensation. The manner in which they handle these cases will go a long way in establishing the credibility of the agency. Does it have the resilience to freely investigate cases where crime is driven by ideology and a different interpretation of national interest?

After all, the CBI is not tasked with investigating malfeasance of bank officials alone, but also concerned with crimes that impact the unity and integrity of the country.

In recent years, though, the CBI has been saddled with investigations that disturbingly weave in the criminal nexus between politics and business. Take the example of the investigations into the multi-billion rupee coal block allocation scam. The Central Vigilance Commission, which stepped in after the SC asked it to go through the clean chits that had been doled out in abundance, asked the agency to register FIRs in at least 14 cases, out of the 64 that it had studied in detail. As many as 250 closed preliminary enquiries (PE) were being analysed by the CVC. CBI insiders say many more such FIRs could be registered. The firms that got relief include TATA, the Aditya Birla Group, Reliance, and SKS Ispat. Sources say that while the CVC did not dispute closing cases against TATA, Birla and Jindal, approval wasn’t so forthcoming when it came to Reliance and the blocks that it secured in Sasan, in Singrauli. However, Anil Ambanis’ Reliance got away in the 2G scam despite serious questions about its role. After the CVC’s intervention, the CBI has registered four more FIRs, which include those against Pramod Kumar Gupta, former Corporate Affairs Minister and a close aide of Lalu Prasad Yadav, and against SKS Ispat, the firm which allegedly is a front for former cabinet minister Subodh Kant Sahay.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2014