As the cries for CBI autonomy get shriller, with the Supreme Court joining the chorus, it is possible that the Government may give in to popular pressure and make the CBI more powerful and more seemingly ‘autonomous’. In a situation where the CBI is primarily an institution of coercive harassment and extortion giving it more ‘autonomy’ rather than making it more accountable is fraught with extreme danger.
We seem to have a genius for defining a problem incorrectly and then finding solutions that not merely exacerbate the problem but give rise to a host of new, much worse, problems. The misuse of the CBI as a political tool is said to be the main problem. But is it?
First, the number of cases where the Government of the day may have an overweening political interest is very limited. Such cases are exceptional and should not determine policy. Second, no amount of control and influence a political executive wields can make up for investigative incompetence which is often the real problem. Take the initial years of the Bofors investigations for example. The CBI had a completely free hand with unprecedented public support, yet it failed to draft even a halfway decent FIR that could stand judicial scrutiny and was thrown out in the first instance. Surely it was neither lack of autonomy nor the interference of the political executive that led to the appalling hash the CBI made of that case!
Autonomy is the space that an institution creates for itself for its own freedom of action unconstrained by any external agency. Unlike, say the IB, the CBI occupies a unique space where there are no other rivals. The Minister in charge performs only routine administrative coordination functions and has no role to play in CBI’s investigations. The Director does not report to him nor has he to bother about an annual performance appraisal. He has more or less a guaranteed tenure, which has never been abridged. The coercive powers that the agency enjoys are enormous, with ready access to any document, information or resource. It is networked with international agencies with access to privileged information of the kind that no one else in the country has. Never short of funds, the CBI can put wiretaps, bring people under surveillance or conduct tests with complete impunity. Third degree methods of interrogation are common as they do not attract the kind public disapproval they would in civilized societies.
Is this then a ‘caged parrot’?
The fact is that there is nothing in the objective circumstances that constrains the CBI. It is entirely up to the Director to be as independent, fearless and unapproachable as he wishes to be; to refuse to be misused; to persist with an investigation if he wishes to and to abandon one if he finds it ill motivated. Being pliable or not is his choice.
The problem is not a lack but excess of autonomy, which is misused for a variety of extortionist pursuits . The overwhelming proportion of the CBI portfolio consists of petty bribery cases, cases of trivial, administrative misdemeanour, minor procedural transgressions and bona fide mistakes made in the decision making process by honest officers, or policy decisions that got soured by subsequent developments beyond the control of the decision maker(s).
These cases, mostly based on motivated complaints or references inspired by those wishing to settle scores are the real bread and butter business of the CBI. Most involve soft targets, particularly civil servants with no political godfathers. Such references allow the CBI to start a fishing expedition so that if they cast a net wide enough they will catch the small fry. If an official reference is not forthcoming, an anonymous or pseudonymous complaint will be converted into a ‘source report’ to initiate the enquiry. The more honest a person, the greater his vulnerability to such fishing exercises. The dishonest, on the other hand invariably have powerful political protection and are rarely touched (unless they fall out of political favour).
It is natural to ask why the CBI should so easily lend itself to political misuse if it has so much autonomy? The fact is that Indian politics revolves around rent seeking through the exercise of State power, especially its coercive power. This requires complicity between political masters and the police. Police officers grow in an environment where cosying up to those in power is the norm. For any officer to climb to the top requires him to learn this art early on in his career. This relationship where both the politician and the police officer mutually align their interests is far more direct than in the case of politicians and civil administrators. Police officers who have not in some manner or the other cultivated useful political links are extremely rare (A Julio Ribiero is absolutely exceptional) .The Director CBI is a plum post and a just reward for a policeman who has managed to reach the top through his political links and his vows of loyalty to the regime in power. Subservience to the dictates of the political masters is as natural to him as breathing -- otherwise he would not be there.
As long as the CBI occupies a position in the architecture of State power which allows it to wield arbitrary power without any responsibility and accountability, and as long it is manned only by policemen. it will remain primarily an instrument of harassment, coercion and extortion (if not in money then in terms of power). The institution will invariably align itself with the politically powerful. More autonomy will make it even more wilful and arbitrary in the exercise of such power.
The most important aspect of CBI reform is not its insulation from legitimate political authority but ensuring its accountability to institutions of democracy, to the Parliament through parliamentary committees for providing non partisan oversight and supervision. We need to increase democratic control over the CBI, not lessen it. Equally important is a complete change of personnel, top to bottom, to bring in people not from conventional police forces but from a wide variety of professions- law, forensic sciences, information technology, finance, business management and human and behavioural sciences.
The bigger issue of course is to shift the public focus from baying for the blood of the corrupt to carrying out systemic reforms to prevent corruption. However effective,- investigation, prosecution, trial and conviction- has a very limited impact on corrupt practices and corrupt behaviour. It deters the honest, paralyses decision making and motivates the corrupt to find ever newer ways to seek rent. But then systemic change and genuine administrative reform has neither a constituency which will vote for it nor a TV news channel which will champion it.