Rethinking CBI

Court, Parliament must weigh the need for operational autonomy with that of larger accountability

After the Supreme Court's strong words on the CBI's fettered functioning, the government has been trying to devise ways to insulate the investigative agency from political interference. A group of ministers will submit its suggestions in an affidavit to the Supreme Court on July 3. It will then go to a standing committee of Parliament. While the full details of the affidavit will be revealed then, the cabinet has cleared a set of recommendations. These changes were occasioned by this paper's revelation that the previous law minister and PMO officials had significantly edited the CBI's confidential report on coal block allocation to suit the ruling coalition.

Splitting the agency's investigating and prosecuting wings is reportedly being considered, as also a different selection method for the director (prosecution), and, in a significant concession, appointing a CBI director through a collegium comprising the PM, the leader of opposition and the Chief Justice of India. Some have questioned its propriety, in the eventuality that the appointment is challenged, and the judiciary is then called upon to decide on an appointment signed off by the CJI. A more controversial suggestion is an "oversight panel" of retired judges. If this body is meant to handle complaints against the CBI, that's reasonable. But if it is meant to monitor investigations, it would cut into the CVC's authority. It is also unclear how such a panel would enhance the CBI's operational autonomy, given that it would merely replace the overseers. Moreover, it is unclear whether more fundamental changes will go through. For instance, the single-point directive, which said that anyone above the joint secretary level could only be probed with the government's permission, was struck down in the Supreme Court's hawala judgment but retained in 1998, by the then government. Much hinges on whether this rule stays or goes.

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