Indeed, both the image and reputation of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have hit a new and unimaginable low. And what is worse is that it has also dragged a few other Government agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and RAW, or Research and Analysis Wing, into the deep morass created by it. But far from the belief that this is the result of only a fight between the two top bosses of the CBI the truth is a little different when considered from the point of view of governance and the high stakes that it may have.
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In the wake of the bitter fight between the CBI Director and its Special Director, Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana, where charges and counter charges of accepting bribe and giving in to corruption and nepotism are being traded between the two questions that arise are: How could things come to such a sad pass? And why was the rot besetting such an important agency not stemmed out in time?
Ask these uncomfortable questions today and the Government higher ups would try to look the other way. The reason for shying off from such queries is simple. And the truth is that most of them have not only been coming under the tight control of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) through the past four years or so but also willy-nilly accepting this though often it amounted and required to bypass their immediate bosses.
This cuts across and holds true vis-à-vis between a Secretary, or even his juniors in the bureaucracy, and the Minister. It also applies with regard to the interrelationship between junior and senior Babus. And in case of investigating agencies an investigating officer may well get a direct call from the PMO to check the progress of the case or cases being probed by him. As per senior Government officials such proclivity on the part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office has often been giving an exaggerated sense of self-importance to middle level, or number two and three, officials in myriad Government departments and agencies.
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Over the years, such new mores of Government functioning have led to the belief among officials cutting across ranks that they are not or hardly answerable to their immediate bosses as they could directly report to the PMO. Among other things, this has been affecting accountability on the part of officials. So much so that the message that this gives is simply that the formally designated bosses of ministries, departments and agencies may well matter as per rule but not as per the new practice which allows insubordination because of the virtual patronage from the topmost rung of power.
This may also leave room for favouritism and corruption since direct interaction with the office of the Prime Minister can be flaunted to earn impunity in one’s own department. Old timers in the administration also loathe what they call to be a provincial mindset that came with the present regime to the Centre, or Delhi. The Gujarat group of important functionaries, who arrived in Delhi when Modi took office, or soon after it, is looked at with some awe. This is true for the CBI like some other important arms of the Government.
Rakesh Asthana had a stint in the CBI as its acting and officiating Director before giving way for Alok Verma’s take over as CBI chief. The changeover nevertheless left a chink in the line of command. Asthana’s direct access to Modi since his Gujarat days made him to be seen as somewhat more equal among peers in the CBI. This became more pronounced when it came to the selection of other officials for important jobs and assignments in the premier investigating agency. And the less said about what happened eventually, the better.
To think that this sordid story is confined to the CBI alone may be an underestimation of an otherwise bigger problem since the method is too selective to leave hope for keeping the inbuilt system of checks and balances unscathed.
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Thus, the crisis that CBI is grappling with today is only symptomatic and the rot being set by whimsical ways is so deep as to not only destroy hierarchies but also introduce lateral entry into steel-framed bureaucracy. Let’s hope that it withstands incessant tinkering. Or, are these assaults on well settled norms?