Everybody has a takeaway from the Supreme Court ruling reinstating agency chief Alok Verma
The Supreme Court’s reinstatement of CBI director Alok Verma is a mixed bag and not quite the rap on the knuckles of the government as is being made out to be. Yes, the court did pull up the executive rightfully for not following due process of referring his supposed misdemeanours to the selection committee and ordering an ouster overnight instead. But by curtailing his powers and confining them “only to exercise ongoing routine functions without any fresh initiative, having no major policy or institutional implications,” the ruling has also reduced him to being a lameduck. There’s the other theory that Verma is being allowed an honourable exit out of a botched-up mess. He will stand vindicated. Meanwhile, with seven days given to the selection committee — comprising the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and the CJI (now his nominee, since he was part of the bench) — to ascertain his status given the vigilance probes against him, and him due anyway to retire end of the month, there is hardly any window left for him to force a probe of nationwide consequence in poll season. In that sense, the court, which likened the CBI to that of a “caged parrot” earlier, hasn’t specified how that can be uncaged. The ruling doesn’t specify routine functions, nor does it fall back on any precedent or reference to define what the court meant by the director desisting from “major” policy decisions. So while Verma can perhaps continue ongoing probes, is empowered to initiate preliminary enquiries in new cases, register FIRs, and launch investigations for cognisable offences, he cannot pursue those that have “political” or “systemic” implications. Now who will decide which is which? Neither can he transfer officers as that could have institutional implications or incur government displeasure. So the Opposition goes back happy, saying the court rebuffed the government, the BJP claims that it ensured the CBI’s top sparring men had been tamed, and the judiciary, which has been criticised by the government for overreaching itself, can pat itself for smartly pushing back the adventurism of the executive. But does this anyway do anything to restore the glory and pride of the country’s top investigative agency? Will we forget the bitter fight and the in-your-face ugliness when Verma challenged his unceremonious ouster alleging he was being made to pay for going after “corrupt” special director Rakesh Asthana and alluding that he was being targetted because certain moves didn’t suit the government? Wasn’t he himself a part of the chosen circle once?
This bureaucratic one-upmanship and playing political favourites is not new to the CBI, which has since inception been a political tool for the government of the day, each using its investigative depth to pursue political and personal vendetta and upholding the power of coercion rather than dispensation of justice, deepening a fear of the establishment rather than truth. And though the Modi government is under the scanner at the moment, fact is the dilution of the CBI’s independence had begun much earlier in the Congress years. A CBI inquiry had become the ruling dispensation’s bargaining chip to keep the Opposition and regional leaders in check, either by over or under-cooking of corruption cases that every politician has indulged in this country. A CBI probe has even been dangled to buy allegiance, particularly of regional parties like SP, RJD and BSP, to stitch up grand coalitions of survival. And whenever an honest, upright officer has gotten too close for comfort to nail the political biggies, he has routinely been told to “go slow” or simply shunted out. However, this does not mean that the present government or any regime hereafter should not try to change its ways. Besides, the government should have factored in that Verma was handling crucial cases like the Medical Council of India bribery case, corruption cases against higher government officials and had just about begun enquiries into the Rafale deal, issues that can strengthen the Opposition armoury at the moment.