CBI’s image will take long to recover from the beating it has taken following feud at the top

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the country’s premier probe body, is facing one of the biggest credibility challenges in its history. The ongoing feud between director Alok Verma and his second-in-command Rakesh Asthana even dwarfs the allegations of corruption against two former chiefs, Ranjit Sinha and AP Singh. The downslide for the agency is so quick and deep that it may not be able to recover from it. Incidentally, meat exporter Moin Qureshi is the central figure in all the recent allegations of corruption. He was said to be a conduit for Ranjit Sinha and AP Singh and now Asthana has been booked for taking bribes in the investigation in the Moin Qureshi case.

If the UPA’s legacy was CBI’s branding of being a caged parrot, under the Narendra Modi government it has been reduced to a sullied parrot. The fact that the No. 2 of the agency has been accused of taking money for settling a probe, gives an impression that investigations can be manipulated with money power. The No. 2, in return, has levelled serious allegations against his boss Verma saying he had given orders against any punitive action against accused Sathish Babu Sana. The complaints had been made to the central vigilance commissioner and the cabinet secretary, not once but twice. The ugly war lands at the doorstep of the prime minister as the agency comes under him. Asthana, a Gujarat cadre officer, was said to be hand picked for CBI by the Modi government despite his alleged controversial past – pertaining to the Sterling Biotech case. He has probed several high profile and politically sensitive cases like Godhra train fire in which 59 people died in a fire inside the Sabarmati Express train near the Godhra railway station in Gujarat and the fodder scam, a corruption scandal that involved the embezzlement of about Rs₹9.4 billion from the government treasury of Bihar.

Amidst the ongoing fight, an unprecedented Bollywood-style film glorifying Asthana has gone viral suggesting that an image-maker was used for his promotion, a tactic unheard of in bureaucratic and police circles. There is an emerging view that the ongoing drama in CBI is part of a purge being carried out by the prime minister to clean up the agency. But if that is true then the collateral damage of the exercise has the potential for being so devastating that it could well bring down whatever is left of the institution in terms of credibility. No amount of repairing will help it leaving no other option to disband it and create something new. Modi had come to power on the plank of curbing corruption but the ongoing CBI saga points to the extent of rot in the system, which the government has not been able to arrest. CBI’s role in letting big loan defaulters like Vijay Mallya slip out of the country has created a poor impression about the government. The situation has come to a point when CBI is being referred to as Corrupt Bureau of Investigation. It will be the biggest irony if the monicker sticks in public debate as the agency’s primary task is to check corruption.