Can a caged parrot sing?

Ranjit Sinha, director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), is going around town good-naturedly telling people that he is called a “parrot” (apropos the Supreme Court’s cruel but apt observation that his agency is a “caged parrot” that “speaks in its master’s voice”).

There is something movingly honest about Sinha’s rueful public admission that this description fits. But, equally evident is the new-found determination of CBI to live down this insult. CBI duly pointed out to the court the significant changes erstwhile law minister Ashwani Kumar had made in the agency’s report on coal block allocations and added, for good measure, that it will track down every last beneficiary in the Family Bansal railways scandal. Gaining in confidence, he slammed those who maintain that the CBI is independent as “blatant liars”, and declared that the government wouldn’t have agreed to “insulate” the agency but for the judicial prompting. After all, why would the Congress minority government, which has survived in office by blackmailing Mulayam Singh and Mayawati with CBI corruption cases, want to give up control of this agency? The worm has turned.

No one is more surprised, one reckons, than the Manmohan Singh regime that hand-picked Sinha, a police officer expected to do its bidding, but goaded by the judiciary, is suddenly turned into an avenging angel. It reminds one of how time and again in history persons hoisted into positions of authority for ulterior motives have surprised their political masters, and one way or another discovered the public responsibility inherent in the exalted posts they occupy.

Before this season of scams is over, the Congress party will feel like Henry II (the early 12th century king of England) — who felt done in by his friend, Thomas Becket, appointed by him as Archbishop of Canterbury to help control the church, only to see the ersatz priest end up powerfully opposing the crown instead. It could collectively mutter (to paraphrase Jean Anouihl’s famous words in his play “Becket’’) — “Will no one rid us of this meddlesome policeman?” or exasperated words to that effect!

Fortunately for Sinha, far from meeting the end Becket did — murdered in the cathedral, he will have the opportunity to put a genuinely independent CBI on its feet and, if he manages the transformation correctly, imbue its staff with a sense of both integrity and purpose, and push it into becoming a strong deterrent against wrongdoing by politicians, civil servants, and other functionaries of the state sworn to do right by the nation.

The Supreme Court has asked the government to provide it with a blueprint to render CBI autonomous. A GOM (group of ministers) — the usual tactic of the Congress-led UPA government to tarry and do little — has been formed to draft a law. Many ministries have jurisdiction over the CBI, which V Narayanasamy, minister of state in the PMO, said should be cut to just two ministries.

But functional autonomy is not going to be much enhanced by such cosmetic means, but by making the agency accountable to no one in any government. The CBI should especially be freed from the onerous requirement of getting the approval of the central ministry or state government concerned to investigate senior civil servants, which makes nonsense of the very idea of an investigative agency that is supposed to weed out the corrupt, considering bureaucrats are the facilitators of corruption by venal politicians.

There is something ludicrous and fundamentally wrong with the potential targets of investigation being the ones (as a body) to decide whether to allow the investigation to proceed against any of them in the first place. So no ministry or state government should ever come into the control loop, otherwise this basic conflict of interest, as in the prevailing system, will hollow it out. It is the main reason why so few corrupt political leaders and babus are investigated and prosecuted, and fewer still see jail-time.

What is the optimal solution for control and oversight?

Obviously, the CBI should be made a statutory body as recommended by honest stalwart policemen, such as Prakash Singh, former director-general, Assam Police, except with a slight tweaking to take care of the issue of monitoring the agency’s activity to ensure it keeps to the straight and narrow. It cannot be the central government but a select committee of Parliament headed by, and this is important, a Member of Parliament from the main opposition party (in the manner of the accounts committee). That will solve most of the problems, leaving the CBI to range free and to haul up law-breakers wherever they may be found within and without the system, while being accountable to the people through Parliament, not any ruling party.

The whole point is to fight the natural urge of those in power to deal punitively with their political opponents by misusing coercive means of the state to harass them and bring them politically to heel. Even governments in the more mature Western democracies are not exempt from such tendencies. Thus, just last week the US Internal Revenue Service was revealed as investigating conservative groups opposed to the Obama administration.

A Washington Post editorial of May 11 said, “A bedrock principle of US democracy is that the coercive powers of government are never used for partisan purpose. The law is blind to political viewpoint, and so are its enforcers, most especially the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service. Any violation of this principle threatens the trust and the voluntary cooperation of citizens upon which this democracy depends.”

What applies to FBI in America should do so for CBI in India.

The trouble is to be in politics in India is to indulge to a less or greater degree in corrupt practices (for instance, campaign financing), and to be in power is verily to misuse one’s privileges. In this context, it is the arbitrariness in the use of agencies such as CBI and the Enforcement Directorate that is subversive of the Constitution and has to be eliminated.

Published in the ‘New Indian Express May 17, 2013 at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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2 Responses to Can a caged parrot sing?

  1. Ravi says:

    Irony of India:
    Shri Prakash Singh,Retired DGP-BSF,Assam,UP u mentioned has only 10000 odd followers on twitter
    whereas Film Stars, Cricketers,etc who have no National Interest have followers in lakhs.
    When there is a seminar on National Security in our cities,usually a conference hall doesnt even get completely filled whereas for IPL,Movie Audio release functions u can find full crowds with even stampedes occurring.
    This is the irony of India.
    Sir,how do u see the future of India ?

    • That’s the state of play in the country — what’s there to say? Future — more distant, the better the prospects get (in the hope and expectation that more of the people will be interested in foreign policy and matters of national security!

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