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Whats all the fuss over CVC?

11 January 2011 View Comments

I had spent a few years working in the US in late ’80s & early ’90s, as a young, cocky, computer engineer. Besides the first impressions of better living standards, high rises and an aggressive media, one of my lasting impression of those years was of their judiciary. Wherever I went in the US, I could always find an ex- Governor of the state (equivalent to our CM) or an ex-Senator (MP), or ex-Sheriff (local Police Chief) or some other top politician/ official serving their sentence in jail. So much so that even President Nixon would have gone to jail in Watergate scandal, had his successor not saved him with a presidential pardon. This was a pretty powerful statement that the rule of law existed there, equally for all.

Compared to this, the scenario that existed in India was of two sets of law enforcements – one for the powerful elite and the other for common citizens. Our system was markedly averse to punishing the powerful. Then in 1996 Sukhram scandal unfolded. A Central Cabinet Minister was caught with crores of rupees under his mattress. He was not only arrested but successfully prosecuted and later convicted. It was a refreshing feeling of liberation as if India had at last joined the league of nations that will no longer brook corruption. But how very wrong were we? The limited success in Sukhram case turned out to be the exception that proves the rule. Nothing changed and the usual song and dance of our Democracy resumed from where it had left off in the Bofors scam of the late ’80s. Till date, a string of scams have hit India at regular intervals from Jain Hawala case, to JMM Bribery scandal, to Fodder scam, to Telgi scam, to the recent spate of scams in 2010 – yet not one major Politician has ever served his jail term. Sure there have been minor victories where a small time politician has been convicted or a major Politician has had to spend some time in jail. But the overall record of CBI is littered with court rebukes, major reversals, losses, mishandling, poor investigation and weak prosecution. Some of it is pardonable for any institution that is overburdened with responsibility, but a large majority of the lapses are induced and not incidental. From seeking sanctions, to investigation, leading up to prosecution, the long winding judicial proceedings allow ample opportunities for subterfuge by the powerful elite.

Thus while throwing out the prosecution case in the famous Jain Hawala scandal, the Supreme Court in December 1997 laid down a string of measures to extricate the investigating agencies (CBI & ED) from the clutches of Government to ensure free and fair investigation of matters involving the ruling establishment.  The chief directives of SC were:-

  1. Single Directive ( an executive order to CBI directing it to seek Government permission before investigating officials above a certain level) was invalidated.
  2. CVC to be accorded statutory status
  3. CVC to be entrusted with the superintendence of CBI instead of the Government.
  4. Appointment of CVC to be done by a 3 member panel including the leader of opposition besides the PM and the HM, forcing Govt to take on board the voice of the opposition.
  5. The appointment was to be done from a panel of three outstanding civil servants and others with impeccable integrity.
    Other directives pertained to the appointment and functioning of CBI & ED.The Government was expected to expeditiously bring in legislation to implement these directives.
Supreme Court questions CVC appointment

Order, order... SC raps PM on CVC appointment (Courtesy NDTV from www.cartoonsbyirfan.com)

However as always, no one gives up any kind of authority with any ease. Successive Governments balked at fully implementing the letter and spirit of the directives and have tried to nibble away the authority that was sought to be placed in the CVC. ( Complete story of the defanging of CVC is available at A Brief History of CVC ). The appointment of P J Thomas was seen as the final nail in the coffin to which the CVC has been relegated. The Government of the day contended that the appointment of the CVC can be made by a majority decision virtually nullifying the presence of the leader of opposition in the selection panel. While the SC directive envisaged a panel of 3 names, the government insisted on one name despite strong objections from opposition. The biggest irony is that while CVC was envisaged by SC as the top sanctioning authority for prosecution against corrupt officials, Thomas himself, it turned out, was a beneficiary of the Government inaction over request for prosecution sanction in an old Palmolie Oil import scam in Kerala.

It is expected that the ongoing court case over the appointment of CVC might result in further directives from the Supreme Court leading hopefully to an independent CVC sometime in future. However, crucial decades are lost going back and forth between the legislature and judiciary before we ever converge on something that is common sense to begin with.

  • VijayAgarwala

    Excellent blog post – I too hope that a large number of big scandals in a short period of time might compel the judiciary to hold GoI and CBI accountable to some extent. The Supreme Court itself has its reputation tarnished with a former CJI being all but convicted in the court of public opinion. Soon after this blog post, former CBI Director, R K Raghavan, wrote in The Hindu on January 18 2011, quoting N Vittal, the first CVC: “corruption in India is a low-risk and high-profit activity” and in such a state of affairs, behavioral economics suggests that elected politicians, career bureaucrats, and appointed public sector officials, from the lowest to the highest levels, will be prone to engage in corrupt activities of all manners. Another former CBI Director, C V Narasimhan, has put forward several actionable suggestions to cleanse public life. Though I am hopeful, somehow corruption has only become worse, from the time I participated in JP movement in 1974 as a young 15-year old to now in 2011. PVNR could save his government from a no-confidence motion in 1993 with an expenditure of merely 2 crores on JMM MPs; today that sum doesn’t buy even an MLA.

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