The war within CBI: Things are falling apart, and the centre is trying to hold… tracing the genesis of the criminal drift
In political discourse, the term ‘Banana Republic’ defines a state with a high degree of political instability, societal violence and oppressive inequality. American author O Henry, describing the central American country of Honduras in his ‘Cabbages and Kings’, coined the phrase and it stuck. It gained currency in India in the mid-1980s, when some commentators jokingly referred to it while talking about prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s penchant for lines like “Humein Bharat ko … banana hai” in his accented Hindi speeches. Of course, India, by no stretch of imagination, can fit into this category of description.
Yet there are unmistakable signs of the country’s governance heading towards a precipice, inevitably leading to a fatal fall, much like the lemming syndrome. The infighting among the top bosses of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – with the agency raiding its own premises and arresting an officer of its own, and the top two bosses hurling serious graft charges against each other – is just a symptom of the malaise that has crippled governance at a deeper level.
Not only that, for the first time in the country, there are institutions ranged against each other. It seems like the CBI versus Enforcement Directorate (ED) versus Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) versus Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) versus Intelligence Bureau (IB) – with the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) as referee-cum-spectator. Mutual destruction is assured in this internecine battle.
The CBI drags a senior RAW official (number two in the organisation) apparently in a vengeful conduct as the RAW gave a sealed envelope against an ED official in the supreme court (SC).
Perhaps CBI’s on-leave chief Alok Verma will go down in the history of the Indian police service (IPS) as the man who single-handedly destroyed a critically important institution beyond redemption. Not that his juniors like special director Rakesh Asthana and joint director AK Sharma were less culpable, but they did not harbour delusions of being gods. Verma assumed himself to be an omniscient, omnipotent entity whose territory is the entire universe.
Finally, there was a public display of this anarchic trends right on a street in the capital, when the security staff of Verma hauled up snooping IB staffers who were roaming around his residence to gather intelligence. If one goes by information leaked by the CBI and the ED, both the agencies have arraigned top officials of the CBDT on several counts.
Without going into the merits and veracity of the charges and counter-charges (which will be scrutinised in the court of law), there is no doubt that officers in the CBI and ED operated exactly like gangs of criminals. And, prima facie, the mendacity and treachery involved in the case surpasses even the standards of the underworld. The manner in which officials have been dragging each other’s family members in their accusations is outright obnoxious. And Verma not only let this happen but was eagerly complicit in the skulduggery – ignoring the fact that this was destroying the very institution he presided over.
What compounds Verma’s crime is his deliberate indiscretion in the recent past. Look at the manner in which he gave audience to Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan, who are seeking investigation into the Rafale deal. In the history of the CBI, the director has never personally entertained any complaint which is political in nature. Verma was apparently fortifying his position in the event of administrative action against him. He was conscious of the fact that the CVC was seized of the issues of corruption against him and had initiated action.
Since the controversy is not restricted to the misdemeanours of the CBI chief, but involves a most crucial organisation in its entirety, the whole state seems to be run like a criminal enterprise in which only the law of the jungle prevails. In these times, we have no reason to be shocked and surprised when a trigger-happy police constable in Lucknow kills an Apple executive just for the heck of it. Or, when an inebriated police inspector with a woman escort gets a sound thrashing in Meerut from a restaurant owner who happens to be a BJP leader. The police constable in Lucknow and the restaurant owner in Meerut were cocksure of getting away with this criminality. That such an indiscretion is bound to be condoned provides a political context in Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s war cry of “thok denge” (“we will bump them off” – criminals, presumably).
Why has the situation come to such a pass? To answer this query, one needs to go to that inflexion point when the Indian politician giddily embraced the ultimate of the Seven Sins listed by Mahatma Gandhi: power without principle. To grab power without principle, what can be more reliable than criminalisation? Thus began the history of gradual criminalisation of governance in India after Indira Gandhi’s ascendancy. She promoted the worst kind of criminals and cronies under the patronage of her son, Sanjay Gandhi. She was surrounded by shady characters who legitimised criminality in politics. It went out of hand to such an extent that it led to the imposition of the Emergency. The 1976 ‘encounter’ killing of Daku Sundarlal, an underworld figure, apparently at the behest of Sanjay Gandhi was an example of political perversion.
Such criminalisation was not limited to party politics and elections: as Indira used and misused power, it slowly came to be ingrained in the institutions of the state. More importantly, the trend provided a blueprint to all subsequent regimes on how to overcome checks and balances.
If this politics were limited to Indira, it could have been reversed when she lost general elections in 1977. But what is mystifying is the fact that the post-Emergency saw Chaudhary Charan Singh pushing the same line of governance and vengefully indicted Indira in fictitious criminal cases – much against the desire of prime minister Morarji Desai. A punctilious and moralist to the core, Desai was averse to pursuing a no-holds-barred line in arraigning political adversaries. The vengeance against Indira recoiled as she came back to power in 1980 with a renewed mandate. Once again, she continued with old habits of keeping dubious characters around.
When, after Indira’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi came to power, his clean image and his historic mandate gave the nation the hope of a new beginning, of purging politics. Ironically, he gave a fillip to this trend and took criminalisation of governance to new heights. Once the Bofors pay-off scandal became a bugbear for him, Rajiv changed his colours and unleashed investigative agencies against his adversaries – not only in politics but also in the media. What was particularly disturbing was the manner in which Rajiv used the ED to fabricate evidence to implicate his rival, VP Singh, in what has come to be known as the St Kitts case. VP Singh, campaigning on the Bofors issue had emerged as India’s ultimate Mr Clean. To “expose” him ahead of the 1989 elections, the ED cooked up documents to show that he and his son, Ajeya Singh, had received money from foreign channels in a bank account in St Kitts, a Caribbean island which was a tax haven. In the midst of the investigation, the election results turned out to be in favour of VP Singh and the St. Kitts case was forgotten by the Congress.
But VP Singh on becoming prime minister instituted an inquiry that revealed a cobweb of deceit, perfidy and crookery not only by ED officials but also various ministers in the Rajiv government, including the then foreign minister PV Narasimha Rao and controversial godman Chandraswamy. The investigations revealed that Rao coerced Indian diplomats in the US to attest fake documents. KL Verma, the then director of enforcement, was implicated as one of the main conspirators to defame VP Singh at the instance of Rajiv Gandhi.
When Rao became prime minister, he attempted to cover up the trails in the scandal, and he turned to the CBI to suppress the facts and manipulate the evidence. An investigating officer, NK Singh, was then summarily removed for pursuing the right course of inquiry.
The saga of misusing and subverting the state institutions for personal gains by the political executive is endless. But what appeared to be equally baffling is that irrespective of the political dispensation, none could muster enough moral courage to change the course. If one looks at successive choices of chiefs of CBI or ED in the recent past, the conclusion would be obvious. Most of them were not known for an impeccable career record. Take for instance the selection of Joginder Singh as the CBI chief during HD Deve Gowda’s tenure. He made a high-profile visit to Geneva to procure Bofors documents, but for some reason the investigation hit the roadblock.
The serious situation of drift was faced by Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he assumed power in 1998. Vajpayee came across a report that the enforcement directorate, then headed by MK Bezbaruah, was all set to take action against a union minister and a legal luminary without taking the government into confidence. The reason was apparently more personal than professional. Vajpayee did not hesitate, and Bezbaruah was sacked in a jiffy. This swift administrative action averted a serious crisis. Similarly, the dismissal of Vishnu Bhagwat as naval chief was yet another instance of Vajpayee’s decisiveness and timely action before things snowballed. He acted after the government was sounded of Bhagwat’s move to put the naval intelligence unit to tail defence minister George Fernandes. The sacking of the naval chief was done quite efficiently and clinically.
However, the post-Vajpayee phase saw intense criminalisation of these institutions when the UPA government used CBI, IB, CBDT and ED to harass political rivals. The choice of CBI chief was guided more by his willingness to do hatchet jobs than his professional competence. The manner in which CBI chiefs like AP Singh and Ranjit Sinha conducted themselves was a classic example of reducing the institution to an instrument of political depravity. Singh and Sinha were known for holding meetings at Ahmed Patel’s house with officers to pursue a particular line of investigation. Sinha took the agency to a new low when, investigating the coal block allotment scam, he went to law minister Ashwini Kumar to get his report vetted before presenting it to the supreme court. It was during his tenure, in 2013, that supreme court justice RM Lodha famously called the CBI a “caged parrot”. Later, after he retired, visitor books of his official residence showed the names of some of the accused in the 2G spectrum scam. The apex court had to finally ask the CBI to launch a criminal investigation against its own chief.
Originally, the political executive’s misuse and near-criminalisation of the investigating agencies was meant to perpetuate power, to hide corruption, threaten and coerce allies (recall the CBI’s off-and-on games with Mulayam and Mayawati during the UPA time). But the experiment went out of hand and what we got was a Frankenstein. The agencies’ top brass had their own games to play, subverting the systems and waging war against one another. The supreme court is now told that an extortion racket is running in the CBI. The racket had in fact come out in September 2016, when a CBI officer threatened and harassed an innocent IAS officer, BK Bansal, to such an extent that he and three members of his family saw no way out other than killing themselves.
Interestingly, none would be better qualified than prime minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah to understand the level of harassment caused by criminalisation of these institutions. During the UPA regime, Shah not only spent a considerable time in jail on cooked-up charges but was also exiled from his home state. And the Manmohan Singh government made a persistent attempt to frame Modi in various cases of police encounters to stymie his chances of emerging on the national scene.
Of course, with Modi’s arrival on the scene, it was hoped that these critical instructions of governance would be substantially purged to stem the rot that had set in long back. However, the choice of officers like Anil Sinha (in 2014) and Alok Verma (2017) once again proved that the NDA government was repeating the UPA rut. The manner in which the fratricidal fight within these agencies was allowed to fester for so long has belied the hope of the possibility of any moral or ethical rejuvenation of these state institutions.
The same drift – “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” – is unfortunately not limited to this set of investigating agencies and organisations, but has spread to other organs of the state, “loosing mere anarchy”. This year, India witnessed four senior judges of the supreme court addressing the nation via a press conference. They painted a scary future of the institution and hinted at very serious wrongdoings – but all in a highly questionable manner without precedence.
We have may have to cover a long distance to qualify for the Banana Republic tag. But our pace is pretty fast.