The open bloodletting at the top of the country’s premier investigating agency, CBI, was already making bad news. Now, the government, with its midnight swoop, has made matters tawdrier. If the previous scenario, of CBI director vs his deputy, Alok Verma vs Rakesh Asthana, shone the light on the civil war within the CBI and deepened distrust in its credibility to do its job, the aftermath of the government’s strike, ousting both men but punishing one (Verma) more than the other (Asthana), sidelining officers close to the former, while shortcircuiting due process, revives accusations of another kind: That the government is attacking the CBI. That it is not just the CBI whose autonomy, such as it is, is being eroded — this government is cavalier in its handling of crucial non-elected supervisory institutions. That the apparent attempt to tame the CBI is connected to other stories of a similar undermining, of the Election Commission, RBI, and the court. The Supreme Court, in fact, is where l’affaire CBI has now come to pause, with Verma challenging the government’s decision by knocking on its doors. In the past, the Court has sought to protect the CBI’s independence and insulate it from political-governmental interference by shaming it for being a “caged parrot” singing its master’s tune, and by laying down a fixed tenure for its director, for instance. Now, the apex court, led by CJI Ranjan Gogoi, has an important opportunity before it. To repair the check and restore the balance. To push back against a trespassing executive and to reinstate in this unbridled power play the voice of constitutional morality and design that has gone missing.
Certainly, the government’s own explanations for the unseemly midnight coup at the CBI offices in the nation’s capital are unpersuasive. It has said that it was necessitated by the need to maintain the “fairness” of an “impartial probe” and to preserve the “highest standard of integrity” of the agency. But the question is: If the government indeed wanted to do the right thing, what was stopping it from doing it the right way? It could have reached out to the committee comprising the Prime Minister, CJI, and Leader of Opposition, which is empowered to decide on the appointment of a CBI chief. The fact that it did not do so, that it chose to move unilaterally and in the dark, is incriminating. A government that has loudly patted its own back on the issue of corruption, which it had made into the centrepiece of its attack on its main political opponent, has now drawn unflattering attention to its own motives in moving against the country’s premier investigative agency mandated to fight corruption.
Does this crisis in the CBI foreshadow a darker night or will the conduct of individuals and institutions make this moment more resonant, more consequential? That’s the question before the highest court.