The Indian Supreme Court’s order to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) to fast-track an inquiry against the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), is the first welcome step in bringing an end to the public slugfest between Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana.
The top court on Friday appointed retired judge A.K. Patnaik to supervise the two-week inquiry into bribery charges against Verma, the CBI director, and also asked interim chief M. Nageswara Rao not to take any policy decisions. The court has also refused to entertain any immediate action on the corruption allegations against Asthana, the CBI special director, which had triggered the bitter public row.
In pronouncing its initial course of action, the Supreme Court refrained from invoking its famous description of the CBI as a “caged parrot”. But by all indications, India’s top investigative agency has acted that way in recent times — or at least attempts have been made towards that outcome. Of course, using the CBI as an instrument of political facilitation and vendetta is nothing new in politics — from the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party to assorted coalitions, governments of all shades have indulged in it liberally. But never has the manipulation been so public and brazen.
The CBI is an autonomous institution — and its functional autonomy must be protected at all costs. No government should interfere in the functioning of the CBI. Instead, along with abiding by the court orders, the federal government must act as an impartial broker to the outcome of any CBI investigations, and should not try to influence them.
The recent sequence of events, allegations and counter-allegations have only worked to undermine public faith in institutions such as the CBI. With investigations into several high-profile alleged scams pending — from Nirav Modi to Rafale — the federal government must mount an immediate effort to restore that trust and focus on completing those inquiries.
Whosoever continues as the CBI director must also be allowed to function without prejudice and as per the Supreme Court’s mandate — even if the outcome of the investigations are not palatable to the government. Institutions such as the CBI are the key pillars protecting the Indian democracy. The systematic degradation of such autonomous and democratic institutions — from academics to law enforcement to film — by political parties must stop. Despite the campaign promises of successive governments, corruption remains a major blot on Indian democracy and is one of the key reasons for its laggard status in global competitiveness.
The government, therefore, needs to fight corruption on a war footing — not those who are fighting corruption and nepotism. That was one of the campaign promises of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It remains to be seen how earnest he is in fulfilling it. It’s time to free the parrot from its cage.