The reinstatement of Alok Verma as Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director by the Supreme Court is a major setback for the centre that had sent him on leave in accordance with the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC)’s recommendations. The midnight order forcing out Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana, purportedly to bring in a semblance of normalcy at CBI – the top officers of the agency had been warring in public – was seen as an affront on the premier investigation agency by opposition parties. The government installed M Nageshwar Rao as interim chief and redesignated him as additional director while the top two officials were out fighting court cases charging each other of corruption, malaise and shady deals.
However, Tuesday’s Supreme Court order may not bring the curtains down on the unsavoury episode just yet. Mismanagement within CBI, charges of rampant corruption against a few investigating officers and simmering discord have tarnished the agency. Restoring its work ethics would be a big challenge for government that’s been neck deep with a campaign against corruption and black money. As for Verma’s reinstatement, as no policy calls or changes in the organisation can be brought about till a final decision is taken on his continuance, there is little that the CBI director can achieve in the next few weeks.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to quickly convene a meeting with Chief Justice of India and leader of opposition to find a successor to Verma is appropriate. Leaving the CBI headless following Verma’s retirement on January 31 is not desirable. Bringing in Asthana is untenable. The next incumbent will have his task cut out against the backdrop of the latest developments. Leader of opposition Mallikarjun Kharge will have to play a positive role in the new CBI director’s selection, setting aside the partisan interests. It needs to be remembered in this context that the Congress party had taken on the Modi government over the churn in the CBI.
Large-scale cleansing of the CBI will have to be taken up jointly by the Prime Minister-led panel, the CVC and the Supreme Court. The government will have to roll out measures to ensure that such instances do not embroil the CBI in controversies going forward. Global best practices may have to be evolved in appointment, removal, promotions and postings in the key investigative agency. The CVC could perhaps be turned into an inter-agency regulator of last resort to ensure no such fracas happens in agencies like National Investigation Agency, Research & Analysis Wing, Enforcement Directorate or other anti-corruption agencies performing vigilance operations within and outside the country. Letting matters drift at the CBI under its top heavy officialdom does not augur well for the stakeholders.