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A CBI with agency

Will Supreme Court use the opportunity to free it from government shackles?

Written by Maneesh Chhibber | Published: April 30, 2013 12:45:38 am

Will Supreme Court use the opportunity to free it from government shackles?

Today,April 30,a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court will take up CBI Director Ranjit Sinha’s affidavit admitting that the agency’s status report in the coal blocks allocation scam had been shown to Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar “as desired by him”. The affidavit further states that the report was also shared with senior functionaries of the PMO and the Union coal ministry. Will the bench treat the UPA’s latest thinly-veiled attempt to interfere in the functioning of the CBI as an opportunity to finally free the probe agency of government’s shackles?

The court can either use this opportunity to set a historic benchmark,as in the Jain hawala case and the Central Vigilance Commissioner P.J. Thomas judgment,or treat it as just another routine case. While the government would like everyone to believe that there is nothing wrong if a law minister and officers of various departments go through a yet-to-be-submitted status report in a scam,the court’s response to the serious transgression could prove to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin.

There are certain questions that the government and the CBI must answer before claiming the benefit of doubt. Since the CBI director had already shown the report to the law minister and senior officers “as desired by them”,why did the probe agency go through the charade of submitting the report in a sealed cover in court? Also,if Additional Solicitor General Harin Raval was present when the law minister went through the report,why did he assert that the report had not been shared with anyone in the political executive? As for the definition of “political executive”,if Ashwani Kumar really feels that the “law minister is not the political executive in terms of administrative control of CBI”,the prime minister must remove him for incompetence.

The CBI director’s affidavit,however,does clearly indicate that he understands that the law minister is part of the “political executive”. Sinha must now clarify in what manner and form the law minister and others “desired” when they asked him to share the status report. Did he or his colleagues do the bidding after receiving phone calls or did they get emails or more formal written communications? More importantly,did these orders come from mere joint secretaries or their seniors? Or maybe the court will ask these questions of him at the next hearing.

Also,who asked the joint secretaries in the PMO and the coal ministry to see the report? Were they acting on orders from superiors? Did the prime minister know about the desire? Did they also make or suggest changes to the status report?

In defending Kumar,the Congress and the UPA,particularly Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,leave themselves open to charges of breaching institutional integrity. How can something that is improper be the correct thing to do? The government’s and the law minister’s assertion that only the “draft” status report,and not the final report,was shown is a ridiculous explanation. In light of this logic,one only hopes the government isn’t sharing draft policy guidelines,particularly those affecting our sovereign functions,with those with access to the corridors of power or deep pockets.

Also,let’s not forget that among the offices that are accused of wrongdoing in the coal blocks allocation scam are the PMO — Manmohan Singh was also coal minister for over three years — and the coal ministry. Why then did the CBI agree to share the status report with senior functionaries of these two offices?

In 1997,a bench of the then CJI,the late J.S. Verma,listed about two dozen guidelines,which,had they been implemented properly,would have ensured independence and autonomy of the investigating agency. Sixteen years later,successive governments have managed to circumvent the guidelines,issued as part of the famous judgment in the Jain hawala case,and continue to treat the CBI as just another wing of the government.

Kumar’s protests that he had not committed any wrong,since the “law ministry is the statutory mandated legal advisor of CBI/ department of personnel and the law minister is not the political executive in terms of administrative control of CBI” is just another example of how the UPA treats a supposedly independent agency like the CBI.

Justice Verma’s judgment had intended to bring the CBI out of government control by giving the CVC power of superintendence over the investigating agency. However,sometime back,Justice Verma talked of the need to make it mandatory for the CBI to report only to courts as far as investigations were concerned. He was only reinforcing the general feeling that the CBI was the handmaiden of the government.

A law minister whose behaviour has left the government open to charges of manipulating the CBI,and a government that still swears by such a law minister,provide an opportunity for the apex court to finally do what Justice Verma wanted to achieve through the Jain hawala judgment: make the CBI truly independent and autonomous. So that future CBI directors don’t go running to their political masters whenever they so desire.

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