A case for autonomy

Published : May 20, 2011 00:00 IST

The arrest of a Congressman and the naming of an influential member of a UPA partner in a charge sheet are proof of what an independent CBI can achieve.

EVENTS of the past few days should warm the hearts of those who have been clamouring for drastic action against dishonesty in high places. The arrest of a ruling party personality and the charge-sheeting of one high profile influential individual from the ranks of an alliance partner, in two separate cases, is proof enough that, given functional independence and overseen only by the Supreme Court, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) can produce impressive results. The whole nation seems gratified by this fearless move by the CBI, and this has greatly enhanced the much maligned organisation's credibility.

By all accounts, investigation in these two cases was methodical, painstaking and strictly lawful. The Supreme Court also seems satisfied with the quality of work. Is there not a case for strengthening the principal investigating agency's autonomy? No one disputes that such autonomy should be without diluting the CBI's accountability to the law. It is not the case of anybody pitching for the CBI that it should be totally free from any audit of its performance or conduct. What is being advocated by those who believe in non-partisan investigation, especially when an alleged crime involves looking into the role of politically influential individuals, is that the CBI should be allowed to proceed against culpable accused on the basis of facts culled out during its investigation and as per law.

This has possibly not been happening all these years because the ruling party or coalition enjoys arm-twisting authority over the CBI to deflect sensitive investigations just to save the former from embarrassment. Vested interests similar to those who have been unabashedly scuttling the Anna Hazare movement recently have indulged in deliberate distortions on the subject by circulating misinformation that once the CBI is given total freedom it will be out of control and devoid of accountability. Nothing can be further from truth.

Many politicians are not impressed with the proposal by some that the Supreme Court should monitor all CBI investigations, important or not. Such an arrangement is perceived as being not in tune with democracy. This is again similar to the attacks on Anna Hazare. He is assailed as anti-democratic all because he wants a decisive role for civil society in drafting the Lokpal Bill. The suggestion that prominence for civil society is contra to democracy is ridiculous to say the least. It is in this context that the proposed Lokpal Bill will have to be viewed.

What kind of relationship will the Lokpal forge with the CBI? One suggestion is that the Lokpal should have its own investigating apparatus. It is relevant that at least in one State, namely, Karnataka, the Lokayukta, the State equivalent of the Lokpal, has its own investigating team. The experience there has been reasonably satisfactory whenever it had a proactive chief such as Justice H. Santosh Hegde. This is the rationale behind the move that seeks a Lokpal, which would have an internal investigation body. The point is building such a team takes enormous time and energy. There is no doubt that talent available in the country is enormous. But the Lokpal staff will have to be chosen with great care, keeping in mind the need for utmost honesty on their part. Traditions will necessarily be built over time.

Possibly, a few CBI officers of proven ability and integrity could form the core of the Lokpal's structure initially. It must, however, be remembered that the CBI itself suffers from a staff crunch and it may be extremely reluctant to part with any of its trusted officers. Retired CBI personnel could help, but such numbers will be too small for induction into the Lokpal.

What will be the CBI's role in a situation where the Lokpal has its own investigating body? This will depend on what shape the Lokpal ultimately takes. It is possible that the Bill provides for the Lokpal drawing on CBI resources and skill whenever a particular case demands it. Such a provision will greatly enlarge the Lokpal's capacity to act fast in some important cases. There is the analogy here of some special investigation teams (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court or the High Courts indenting for officers serving in some States. The lending rules are flexible enough, and the Union Home Ministry has always shown itself willing to help.

Next comes the question of who all will come under the Lokpal's purview. This is a ticklish and contentious subject where unanimity is hardly likely to emerge. Two functionaries are particularly discussed here. These are the Prime Minister and members of the judiciary. While I can understand the justification for leaving out the latter, considering the need for conserving judicial independence, I do not, in the case of the Prime Minister. He is at best the primus inter pares in the Union Council of Ministers. He is a live political animal and takes or fails to take many crucial decisions that have financial implications. A Manmohan Singh comes only once in a while. The fact that he maintains a nearly 100 per cent honesty is no guarantee that his successors would emulate him.

If the Lokpal has to initiate strong action against a Prime Minister, there are always others who can step in to fill the breach. There will be no constitutional crisis in an eventuality where a Prime Minister has to step down following a Lokpal investigation. A Lokpal Bill without jurisdiction over the Prime Minister is like a Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. I do not, therefore, comprehend the unwillingness of some in authority now to include the Prime Minister among those who could be investigated by the Lokpal, particularly when the law of the land does not make a distinction between him and the others in the Executive.

The argument is, therefore, grounded on political expediency, which ignores the need for deterring top functionaries from lapsing into dishonesty. The 2G spectrum allocation case alone would indicate how the Prime Minister's authority was flouted by a dishonest Minister, and corruption in high places is an accepted reality. The slightest suggestion that the Lokpal is for handling lesser mortals alone would give the impression that we are intent on making a mockery of the whole battle against corruption.

There is one more area that has to be debated while examining the structure of the Lokpal. How will the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) fit into the scheme of things if and when the Lokpal becomes a reality? I am all for the CVC being subsumed by the Lokpal. I see no practical difficulty in the merger. Retaining the CVC is superfluous and could create confusion in the minds of those who want to lodge a complaint against a public servant. More than anything else, the CVC' performance until now has been nominal. This is not because its members lacked ideas or zeal. The set-up lacked the clout, which alone could make a difference while fighting sinister forces indulging in corruption or supporting it. The analogy of the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) of Hong Kong is not wholly inappropriate here. To shoot it down as impractical because Hong Kong is a small island is being mulish and shows reluctance to try out bold experiments in a difficult situation.

Finally, many of us are appalled at the sinister attempt to discredit the Anna Hazard movement. Spin doctors based in the national capital have been hyperactive throwing confusion over vital issues surrounding the Lokpal. This is reprehensible, and those involved in this insidious game are doing the greatest disservice to posterity. Influential members of the civil society should join together to appeal to these elements to dissociate themselves

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