2018 could be the year of the Supreme Court clean-up. It banished antiquated laws that criminalised homosexuality and adultery, but to really seal its position this year, our top court has a really dirty job in its yard – the mess that is the CBI or Central Bureau of Investigation.
It's really not an easy task despite the optimism shown by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley after the Supreme Court ordered a time-bound inquiry into allegations floating around the CBI's big fight. He's presumably addressing the controversy as a representative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, because the minister in charge of the CBI, Jitendra Singh, has been kept out of this. From CBI director Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana being divested of their powers, to the mass transfers, which should have been his domain, it has all been handled by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and officials of the Prime Minister's Office. It's not surprising because no minister in charge of the CBI has actually ever fiddled with it. It has always been others – like NSA Doval or PMO officials or even the Law Minister, like in the Congress rule.
Mr Jaitley said that the top two officers of the CBI should be like 'Caesar's Wife', beyond suspicion. What's mindboggling then is why M Nageswar Rao was chosen by the government to fill in for the director. As NDTV has reported extensively, Nageswar Rao's file titled "premature repatriation" was sent to the Cabinet Committee on Security of the government because they found him suspicious on various counts. The dossier against him included misleading property declarations, closing investigations and not carrying out raids among many others. Shouldn't the government explain how their appointee is not above suspicion?
Insiders tell NDTV that the fight between Rakesh Asthana and Alok Verma started by chance (File)
Especially because CBI Special Unit chief Amitabh Dhillon recommended that he shouldn't be in the agency in the first place. The clue may lie in the fact that one of the reasons cited by Amitabh Dhillon is "political affiliation".
That really is the core of the problem.
Every time the CBI has been caught in a scandal, it's because of various political affiliations. Ask Special Director ML Sharma who was supposed to take over from Vijay Shankar in 2008. That was the first time that there was no handover photo-op from one director to another, because suddenly on the last day, Mr Sharma was kicked out and in came Ashwani Kumar. What gave him the edge over the top candidate was that he'd worked closely with Rajiv Gandhi in the Special Protection Group (SPG). He was so aware of the murky details of his appointment that he never spoke in public again, choosing to teach in Jindal University after his retirement. In fact, I called him for a comment this week and he said- "I don't know, I've been out too long.'' How could he – after all, he had been there.
In 2016, RK Datta, who had worked for years on the 2G case and the coal case and a lot else, was overnight shunted to some obscure post in the home ministry to make way for Rakesh Asthana, who had worked for years with Team Modi in Gujarat.
The only difference is that Datta sulked quietly while Alok Verma, chosen because of his low profile, has decided to fight.
Insiders tell NDTV that the fight between the two started by chance. Alok Verma was reportedly helping some officers get postings (incidentally related to Enforcement Directorate officer Rajeshwar Singh) and wanted to overlook internal objections. But it seems some PMO officials checked with Asthana and he conveyed adverse reports that resulted not only in these candidates being rejected but also being sent to Uttar Pradesh.
That "political affiliation" has manifested itself in the mess we see today. While the opposition paints Alok Verma as the dashing knight in white taking on the might of the government, the truth may be more complex.
Contrary to the government's claims, the CBI's working bible – the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act is unequivocal that the vigilance body cannot take away the CBI director's powers without consulting the panel that appoints him.
So, dear Chief Justice and other honourable judges, in 2013, you gave us an epic phrase — the caged parrot — for the CBI. This time around, go beyond the rhetoric and help free the caged parrot. I am sure your collective wisdom will find a way but for the life of me, I cannot imagine how.
(Sunetra Choudhury is Political Editor, NDTV.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.