A vacancy in the CBI

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

The Central Bureau of Investigation is without a Director, thanks to the procedures adopted by the selection committee in disregard of Supreme Court guidelines.

THE Central Bureau of Investigation, the country's premier investigative agency, is once again in the throes of confusion. Dr. R.K. Raghavan retired as its Director on April 30 but the government, for reasons unclear, is yet to name his successor. P.C. Sharma, the senior-most Special Director in the CBI, has taken over as acting Director and will continue "till further orders". Since Raghavan's retirement was never a secret and the Supreme Court guidelines for the choice of the CBI Director are clear, the government's inaction is inexplicable.

The confusion can be traced to certain questionable actions taken by the committee that chose the CBI Director, which is headed by Chief Vigilance Commissioner N. Vittal. Vittal decided in early April that he would consider only police officials with a minimum remaining tenure of two years for the post. Three days ahead of a scheduled hearing by the Supreme Court on the government's request for a clarification on this matter, the committee announced a panel of three officers to be considered for the post. These officers had little or no experience in "anti-corruption" work, a criterion that had considerable weightage in the norms laid down by the Supreme Court for the appointment of the CBI Director.

In its December 1997 ruling in the "Vineet Narain case," the Supreme Court had said that "recommendations for appointment of the Director, CBI, shall be made by a committee headed by the Central Vigilance Commissioner with the Home Secretary and the Secretary in the Department of Personnel as members. The views of the incumbent Director shall be considered by the Committee for making the best choice." With little ambiguity, it said: "The committee shall draw up a list of IPS officers on the basis of their seniority, integrity and experience in investigation and anti-corruption work." In order to eliminate any scope for confusion, the Court also stated that the final selection shall be made from among the panel by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. If none of the panel members was found suitable, the reasons would have to be recorded and the committee should be asked to draw up a fresh panel. The Court specified that the CBI Director would have a minimum tenure of two years regardless of the date of his superannuation. This was to ensure that "an officer suitable in all respects is not ignored merely because he has less than two years to superannuate from the date of his appointment".

The present confusion and uncertainty has created a widespread feeling within the CBI that the government is seeking an appointment of political convenience, which will be at the expense of the CBI's autonomy.

In a letter he drafted a day before the selection committee was scheduled to meet, Vittal, ignoring the clear stipulation of the Supreme Court, asserted that it would be a "healthy tradition" to consider only officers who have clearly two years more in service. He further said that seniority, like maternity, was an unquestionable fact and that merit, like paternity, could be questioned.

The selection committee met on April 17 and drew up a panel of three names. At the top of the list was H.J. Dora, an IPS officer of the 1965 batch who is currently Director-General of Police in Andhra Pradesh. The other two officers are also from the 1965 batch: S.C. Chaubey, Director-General of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and K. Chakraborty, Director-General of Police, Gujarat. Chaubey, who belongs to the Uttar Pradesh cadre, is believed to enjoy the support of the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party's State unit. But Chakraborty is likely to be eliminated from the panel since the Gujarat government has put on record its reluctance to release him for Central duties.

According to some top level officers in the CBI, the selection committee took into account only the fact that these officers had more than two years of service left, ignoring all the other norms set by the Supreme Court. "They may be excellent officers in their own right but they have little or no experience in anti-corruption work and investigation," said a senior officer. He also said that it was highly unjust that the committee left out Sharma, who was "obviously the most suitable candidate" in terms of the number of years of service in the CBI and experience in anti-corruption work.

Sharma, who began from the rank of Superintendent of Police, has served the CBI in various capacities for 21 years. Having assumed charge as Special Director in March 1999, he is in charge of all the major investigations. He has the Police Medal for Meritorious Service in 1984 and the President's Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 1991.

The extent of resentment among CBI officers can be gauged from the fact that a paper has been doing the rounds in the agency's headquarters, detailing why Sharma should have been the obvious choice for the top post. It is also known that Raghavan had recommended Sharma as his most appropriate successor. But the selection committee disregarded this recommendation. Perhaps the only reason for this was Vittal's understanding of the relative importance of the criteria of seniority and merit. Sharma, an IPS officer of the 1966 batch, has a residual tenure of less than two years. In terms of the Supreme Court guidelines, this is not a valid ground for disregarding his candidature.

On April 20, the Supreme Court ruled that no further clarification was required to its December 1997 ruling on the process of choice of the CBI Director. But by then, the selection committee's own interpretation had seemingly won the day. The government continued to equivocate. Rather than choose an officer from the panel recommended by the CVC or ask the selection committee for a reconsideration, it decided to make an interim arrangement with Sharma as acting Director. This has led to a feeling within the CBI that Sharma will finally be eliminated from consideration in favour of somebody more "politically suitable". Sharma, it is felt, would not be quite amenable to the powers that be, given his track record and the advantages he has as an insider in the CBI.

CBI officials point out that the Court has reaffirmed that a minimum residual tenure of two years is not an essential requirement for being considered for the top job. The government sought a specific clarification on the question whether the Court's stipulation that the CBI director should hold office for a minimum of two years would "exclude from the zone of consideration an officer who is found suitable in all respects even though his period of tenure at the time of selection is less than two years". The Court merely said that its earlier order was clear enough: that the two-year tenure clause was laid down with a view to ensuring that superannuation did not come in the way of appointing deserving officers to the post and not to exclude officers otherwise found suitable.

A petition filed by N. Radhakrishnan, a 1966 batch officer of the Karnataka cadre, before the Bangalore bench of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) has complicated matters further. CAT had earlier this year struck down Raghavan's appointment in response to a petition filed by another Karnataka officer, C. Dinakar, who is now arguing Radhakrishnan's case before it. Though its order has been stayed, CAT has now taken up the case of Radhakrishnan who claims that he has a better claim to the post on grounds of merit than other officers of the 1966 batch.

THE National Democratic Alliance government's inaction is also being attributed to pressures from some of its key constituents. "The exigencies of alliance politics have come into play," said a senior official in the Department of Personnel. Senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office, however, deny that there was any controversy or any mystery in this affair. They also deny that there is any political angle to it.

Yet it is unlikely that the appointment process will be free of controversy in future too. If the government goes along with the selection committee's recommendation, many other eligible officers who have been left out of consideration, including Sharma, could seek legal redress. The government might decide to wait for CAT's ruling on the petition before it and then request the selection committee to draw up a fresh panel. This would mean inordinate delay in making a decision.

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