Can you put your hand on your heart and honestly say that the CBI does not face any political pressure?" I asked the suave, affable Amar Pratap Singh, the outgoing CBI director, as I interviewed him for NDTV. Mr Singh had never done a TV interview before and he had only agreed because we had just been too pushy with him, so that was just one of the reasons he was supremely uncomfortable sitting in that interviewee’s chair, under the heat generated by our lights. Even so, he managed a smile as he said the CBI was not controlled by any government but was protected by the various courts of the land. The problem was, of course, nobody seemed willing to believe him, least of all, his own colleagues and those that had worked in the CBI.
They recalled how, just like Singh, one former director of the CBI, US Mishra, sat down to talk to a national daily in 2005. Mr Mishra, appointed by the NDA government and serving under the UPA government, complained about the lack of autonomy in the working of the agency. "Every time a case is registered," he was reported to have said, "Phones start ringing and influential people start putting pressure." The interview was a front-page flyer and became a political bombshell. But there are apparently very good reasons why no CBI director after Mishra has vented about autonomy like that.
First and most obviously, the UPA managed to be in power and only installed those candidates it liked, to be CBI directors, so there was no opportunity for mutual displeasure. But what I didn’t know till recently is how the government punished Mishra for giving the ‘autonomy’ interview. The story goes that the government decided to freeze resources for Mishra. Since all appointments above the rank of Superintendent of Police have to be cleared by the department of personnel, they didn’t allow a single officer to be inducted into the agency, which is perpetually starved of resources. Take that, you-autonomy-seeker, you!
It sounds petty but apparently, it can get a lot worse. Insiders talk about how the government loves to play games and it may sound silly, but the most favoured way to hit at the CBI is to stall all foreign trips, like study tours and conferences. For instance, one CBI director had to give the annual Interpol conference — always held in Europe — a miss because the permission came much after the conference had started. Not a big loss, we might think, but what would you say to the ability to sanction office supplies? The CBI director can’t even buy computers for his office — even for that, they have to get a clearance from the government. "How can the CBI director only have the sanctioning power of 5 lakh rupees?"
So, in their defence, CBI officers say the system is stacked against them from acting independently. Whether it is the issue of sanctions which is perpetuated by law to ensure that the government does have a say in who is prosecuted and was used by the government to ensure that BSP chief Mayawati was not probed for the Taj Corridor case; or the prosecution system whereby law officers, chosen by the government, decide whether the CBI has a case or not. So even if the CBI wants to name names in chargesheet like we saw in the Airtel-Vodafone case this week, or if it wants to file an appeal in any case, it is the government that decides through the law ministry, and not the CBI.
Of course, many CBI directors have gone a long way in pleasing the government when they could have at least given in writing, their note of dissent. Since I started with how Mishra spoke against the government, let me end with an instance of how he went the opposite way as well. In February 2004, the Delhi high court while ruling in the Bofors case, acquitted all accused including the Hinduja brothers of bribery charges. The court also said the CBI could find no evidence against Rajiv Gandhi. There is a three-month window to file an appeal in any case and elections were held in May. In June, director US Mishra decided there was no need to appeal in the case even though many investigating officers felt to the contrary. Was he bulldozed into making this decision by the new UPA government? Many believe so but we’ll never know. Mishra never gave another interview about his experience and the other directors like AP Singh have only gone on record to say all is well.
Sunetra Choudhury is an anchor/reporter for NDTV and is the author of the election travelogue Braking News On Twitter: @sunetrac