The CBI story, featuring the highest institutions of the country, continues to raise more questions than it answers. So far, the institutions involved have not acquitted themselves honourably. Three months ago, after an internal war within the CBI had spilled into public view, the government conducted a midnight swoop, divested the CBI director, Alok Verma, of his powers, sent him on forced leave. At that time, the government’s move sparked questions about the short-circuiting of due process in the transfer/removal of the head of the country’s premier investigating agency.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court set aside the government’s order and directed the reinstatement of the CBI director. It laid down that any “transfer” of the CBI chief could not be effected without the prior consent of a high-powered selection committee comprising the PM, LoP and the CJI. The court, which had also asked for, and received under sealed covers, the report of the Central Vigilance Commission’s probe into the allegations and charges against Verma — supervised by retired Justice AK Patnaik — spoke of the need to insulate the CBI from “extraneous influence” in order to maintain its premier status, and public trust in it. Two days later, the selection committee met and voted 2-1 to remove Verma from his post, citing “serious observations” by the CVC. A day after that, Verma resigned. And Justice Patnaik distanced himself from the CVC’s report, telling this paper that there was no evidence of corruption against Verma.
While the apex court had done well to restore the primacy of due process in this case, the question is this: If it was only ruling on procedural propriety, why did it seek and receive the CVC’s report on the merit of the allegations against Verma? And if the court did, indeed, factor in the report’s findings, why did it not see it fit to mention Justice Patnaik’s disagreements with the report in its own order, given that he had been mandated by the court to supervise the inquiry? There is something amiss, too, in the conduct of the selection committee. Why did the committee appear to go by the CVC report, but not by Justice Patnaik’s disagreements with it? Its summary decision-making in an issue of this delicacy and visibility — as Verma’s public statement and the LoP’s dissent note mention, the committee did not give Verma an opportunity to respond to the charges against him — is also troubling.
This saga seems to be made up of controversial decisions alternating with opaque deliberations behind closed doors and between sealed covers. The lack of transparency that runs through it has ensured that grave issues such as the autonomy and independence of the CBI, and the proper role and powers of the government vis a vis the agency, are thrown up without closure or resolution. For the players in this drama, and especially for the court, this could have been the opportunity to lay down healthy precedents for the future. So far, they have fallen short of the bar they have themselves set.