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Published on: Nov. 17, 2020, 3:05 p.m.
Opposition ruled states target CBI
  • The CBI has emerged as the favourite punching bag of the Opposition

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was set up under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act of 1946. This law was enacted to give the CBI powers to investigate cases of corruption involving Central government employees. However, under Section 6 of the Act, the state governments, except that of Delhi and the Union Territories, can withdraw this permission accorded to the CBI.

The CBI functions under the Ministry of Personnel, Pensions & Public Grievances of the Central government, and is exempted from the purview of the Right to Information Act. Usually, though not always, the ministry is headed by the prime minister, with a minister of state reporting to him.

In the latest round of confrontation the BJP-ruled Centre and the opposition-ruled states, the CBI has emerged as the favourite punching bag of the latter. One by one, a number of non-BJP states such as Jharkhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Punjab have withdrawn general consent accorded to the CBI to investigate cases. On each such occasion, the state government had hinted that it suspected the agency of acting at the behest of the Centre. Now, the investigative agency will have to seek permission from the state government to probe each and every case.

The withdrawal of permission by the Uddhav Thackeray government in Maharashtra created the maximum ruckus. The decision was driven by the suspicion that the agency may take over a case being investigated by the state police regarding the manipulation of TV viewership figures, which the state police has started investigating. The pro-BJP and anti-opposition channel Republic was the target of this investigation. Previously, the CBI had taken over the police investigations into the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput from Maharashtra police at the behest of the government in Bihar.

Punjab vs Centre

In the case of Punjab, the state had earlier withdrawn consent given to cases of Bargari sacrilege and Behbal Kalan firing, after the Assembly had passed a resolution to withdraw these cases from CBI. Punjab is already locked in a confrontation with the Centre over the latter’s farm laws. The state government has sided with the farmers protesting against the laws. The state’s Legislative Assembly not only passed Bills negating the Centre’s legislation, but its chief minister Amrinder Singh led a dharna of legislators at Jantar Mantar in Delhi against the Union government recently.

The Centre has hit back by suspending goods trains to Punjab, citing as reason that the protesting farmers are ‘blocking the tracks and posing a threat to railway employees’. The Centre has also withheld the Rural Development Fund (RDF) given to Punjab every year during the procurement of paddy. The state is set to lose Rs1,100 crore if the Centre does not relent. With the suspension of train traffic, the state’s thermal plants have been shut for want of coal, farmers are unable to get fertilisers and industry consignments are stuck. The CM spoke to Union Home Minister Amit Shah to seek his intervention, but no headway has been made yet.

The CBI has, in the past, been called a ‘caged parrot’ that sings the Centre’s tune. There is a formidable body of evidence to establish that, through much of the last three decades and even now, when an investigation is not being monitored by the court, the agency has served as pretty much its master’s voice – especially when it comes to its role as anti-corruption watchdog.

Preliminary enquiries, FIR, cases, charge-sheets, all are filed, dropped or put on hold, depending on who is in power and what they want. The current confrontation strengthens the perception that states in the Opposition see the Centre as weaponising the agency to keep the heat on opposition-led governments.

More so, when despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s talk of ‘co-operative federalism’, Centre-state relations have been on a downward spiral. To ensure due process, the courts of course can and should ignore the state government’s reservation and order the agency to investigate a case. However, when the Centre and the state are engaged in a tug-of-war with the investigation, it diminishes the credibility and authority of the CBI.

And, yet, the CBI remains the first port of call for governments to signal that they favour a fair probe insulated from politics that may hobble the local police. This is the agency’s strength and it needs to leverage it, because the onus of ensuring the CBI’s reputation is primarily on the CBI – helped by an independent judiciary – since there will be no incentive for the political executive to ensure that. The Supreme Court’s terms on the director’s appointment – by including the Opposition in the selection panel and fixing terms – has brought some reform but much more needs to be done.

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