In Delhi’s power circles, there is a saying that the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) typically trisects his two-year tenure for three different functions. The first phase, that of thanksgiving, would see the chief of India’s premier investigating agency pander to the whims of the ruling party that has employed him, by coddling friends and harassing rivals. In the second phase of consolidation, he would develop some autonomy after having done enough dirty jobs for the regime. The third phase is devoted to seeking a post-retirement posting, preferably in a Raj Bhavan. Sometimes, though, this leads to controversy, as in the case of former CBI director Ashwani Kumar being named Governor of Nagaland by the UPA Government last year.
“Since the CBI has become a political tool in the hands of the Government of the day, it is natural for its director to expect something in return for all things he does to keep them stable and happy,” says a senior intelligence officer, referring to controversies surrounding cases handled by the agency. “CBI chiefs end up being the crisis manager of the Centre,” he explains when asked how the UPA I—a minority government—managed to stay in power as though it was a majority government — by twisting the arms of political rivals by “super-manipulating” cases. “All this is an old story. There is nothing new about it,” says a Home Ministry official about the current CBI chief Ranjit Sinha having initially pursued cases against BJP leaders such as Amit Shah and others and later having refused to play ball when it came to lassoing the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi in an encounter killing case. “These are various stages in the life of a CBI director. It is the same in almost all cases except for the difference in longevity of each stage,” he chuckles.
Times have changed. Under Sinha, CBI is more than a political tool for the coalition in power to batter opponents into submission. It has also become a powerful instrument to settle scores between corporations by vilifying opponents through cases. The most famous example is that of industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla. In October last year, the CBI registered an FIR against him and his company Hindalco for securing the mining rights of Talebira II coal block in 2005 through dubious means. In February this year, it rubbished reports that it was about to wind up the case for lack of evidence. The CBI had earlier alleged that Birla had entered into a criminal conspiracy with former Coal Secretary PC Parakh, who was also named in the FIR, to change the ownership of mining rights. All these came in the midst of a paralysis that has set in, hurting investor sentiment and the ease of doing business. In the face of outrage and slide in government- business ties, the PMO was forced to come up with a statement that the allocation of two blocks in Odisha was “appropriate and based on the merits of the case”. A few days ago, the CBI dropped all charges against Birla and glibly issued a statement: ‘The evidence collected during investigation did not substantiate the allegations levelled against the persons named in the FIR.’
Then what were all the bluster and threats of last year all about?
Without doubt, the CBI has been allowed to be used by business houses for their petty games of one-upmanship and cover-ups. The plot has thickened with reports suggesting that he met representatives of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) at a time when the agency was meant to re-investigate charges against Reliance Telecom and Swan Telecom in the 2G spectrum allocation case. According to the visitors’ list seen by Open, two ADAG officials met the CBI director 50 times in 15 months at his official residence—2 Janpath Road—in Delhi. Sinha, according to the visitors’ diary, had also met alleged hawala operator and Kanpur-based meat exporter Moin Akhtar Qureshi at his official residence at least 90 times in the past 15 months. Reports have quoted the visitors’ diary at the CBI chief’s home. An NGO, the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, one of the PIL petitioners on whose plea 122 licences for 2G spectrum were cancelled by the apex court, also made similar accusations.
After facing heat over victimising Birla, for sending wrong signals to Indian industry and for lowering investor confidence even further early this year, Sinha came under sharp attack last month from then CBI special public prosecutor UU Lalit for attempting to derail a case against Reliance Telecom and three accused ADAG directors in the 2G spectrum allocation case. According to reports, he questioned the intentions of the CBI director and DIG in-charge of 2G investigations, Santosh Rastogi, for sending a ‘draft’ request to him, seeking further investigation of the case against Reliance.
Lalit came down heavily on the new CBI draft which said ‘Clause 8 of USAL (unified access service licence) guidelines should apply only to licences and not to the applicants’. He held that such a position would weaken the case against ADAG. This CBI draft was “tantamount to weakening of the case”, Lalit had said. The Anil Ambani-led company reportedly used Balwa’s Swan Telecom to acquire licences and frequency beyond its permissible limit. The 2G allocation case involves the undercharging of telecom companies by the Manmohan Singh Government for licences bundled with airwaves used for services. Former Telecom Minister A Raja, DMK leader Kanimozhi, some former bureaucrats, corporates and their top executives were named in FIRs and chargesheets filed by CBI in the 2G case. Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India had in a report pegged a presumptive loss of Rs 1.76 lakh crore in this allocation—the UPA Government had contested this figure.
After these reports came out, lawyer Prashant Bhushan also hit out at the CBI director and claimed that he had received the copy of the visitors’ register of the CBI director’s residence. He called the details “very disturbing”, especially because the visit happened at a time when Sinha made “attempts” to file an affidavit which sought to dilute the 2G scam charges against ADAG. Lalit, who has opposed the affidavit, is now a judge of the Supreme Court. Sinha contended that it was an internal note, and didn’t constitute the final view of the agency.
Other names on the visitors’ list at Sinha’s official home included Devendra Darda, son of Congress MP from Yavatmal, Vijay Darda, an accused in the coal scam along with his brother Rajendra Darda over allotment of coal blocks to Nagpur-based businessman Manoj Jayswal and others. “In fact, all this rapid closure of coal allocations cases by the CBI may be an indication of the intentions of the CBI director. There could be a reason,” says a government official. CBI has denied any wrongdoing in these cases.
The coal allocation scam, or ‘Coalgate’, which engulfed the UPA Government two years ago, involves allocation of 194 coal blocks to public and private enterprises for captive use in a non-transparent manner between 2004 and 2009, mostly under lobbying by politicians.
A CAG report which created massive uproar said the absence of a competitive bidding mechanism while allocating coal blocks led to windfall gains for corporate houses and a loss of Rs 1.86 lakh crore to the exchequer, raising questions about crony capitalism. Lawyer Bhushan had also charged CBI Director Sinha, a 1974 batch IPS officer of the Bihar cadre, of scuttling the filing of a chargesheet against former Telecom Minister Dayanidhi Maran in the Aircel-Maxis case. After much delay, the CBI filed a chargesheet against Maran and others last week claiming he and his family had received a bribe of Rs 742 crore for coercing entrepreneur C Sivasankaran to sell his telecom company Aircel to Maxis, promoted by Malaysia- based billionaire T Ananda Krishnan.
FOR POLITICAL GAINS
“The CBI director was the henchman for the Government in many of the highly controversial and much-reported cases in the two years in the run-up to the elections,” the Home Ministry official says, emphasising that “he was there in that position at that time and so he became a tool in the hands of the UPA regime. It could have been anyone else. He happened to assume the post in 2012 and was meant to handle the cases the government wanted to pursue to meet their goals before the 2014 polls”.
Incidents of the party in power using the CBI to meet its political goals are numerous in India. Since the return to power in 2004 of the Congress, it has used the CBI to come up with cases and close them at whim. Ahead of any crucial test of its majority in the Lok Sabha, it was not unusual for the CBI to come up with disproportionate assets cases (or cases like the Taj Corridor one) to buy the silence of parties such as the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, two sworn rivals in Uttar Pradesh. In the crucial vote in the Lok Sabha after the Left parties withdrew their external support to UPA-I in 2008, the Congress-led alliance managed to get the SP on its side and ensured the Government’s survival.
Over the past 10 years, the UPA had zealously used the agency to corner rival parties. The most desperate case of such a wild chase was for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scalp when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat over various cases, including the 2002 riots case and several others, claim BJP leaders. “The key to targeting Modi was to get the head of his trusted ally, Amit Shah. The CBI has been at it for more than a year after Sinha assumed office,” says a BJP activist.
The CBI, for its part, had claimed that it was only trying to bring the guilty to justice. When Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man who is now BJP president, was chargesheeted in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case, the BJP had alleged a conspiracy to frame a political rival. This case, which involved the killing of underworld criminal Sohrabuddin Anwarhussain Sheikh on 26 November 2005, while he was in police custody, saw many twists and turns later. The CBI, which first argued that Sheikh was killed at the behest of the then state Home Minister Shah, later sought to prosecute him separately in the Tulsiram Prajapati fake encounter case (Prajapati was the one who helped identify Sohrabuddin). The decision incurred much wrath, as the two cases were being treated as separate to make sure that if Shah is acquitted in one of the cases, there would still be a chance to pin him down in the other. Much to Shah’s relief, a bench led by former Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam scrapped the second FIR against Shah, saying the Prajapati case was linked to the bigger Sohrabuddin Sheikh killing case and did not need to be separate. Legal experts agree that one person cannot be prosecuted twice for one case.
Sinha, who has had a not-so-remarkable career as a police officer, was the director general of the Railway Protection Force and later director general of the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) before he was named CBI director in December 2012. Besides, Manmohan Singh chose him as the CBI chief over other officers recommended by the Central Vigilance Commission. Singh had come under criticism for not following the collegiate system for choosing the CBI director. By mid-last year, sensing winds of change buffeting across the country, Sinha, who now claims that his visitors’ list is fake and that the latest media onslaught is an intrusion into his privacy, had begun to cultivate “some sense of autonomy”, says an officer close to the matter. “The dexterity he showed in pursuing the Sheikh encounter had disappeared by then. Which explains why he refused to play ball when senior Union ministers hatched a conspiracy to nail Modi by framing Shah in the Ishrat Jahan murder case,” says this officer.
Open was the first to report the conspiracy to entangle Modi, who the Congress perceived as a threat to its continuance in power, in the Jahan fake encounter death case. It involved three senior Congress leaders who wanted the CBI to carry out the dirty job. A meeting was called at the residence of a former Union minister. Sinha’s deputy Saleem Ali was lured with a vice-chancellor’s post in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. The plans went awry when Sinha refused to turn up. Obviously, he read the writing on the wall. “By then, it seems Sinha was in the second or the third phase of his life as CBI director,” laughs the police officer.
Maybe such calculations have gone awry this time round. Accusations abound that the CBI director’s role seems to have spilled onto a turf beyond politics— where he uses corporates and allows them to use him in return. Did he make himself a prime candidate for being under the microscope of the agency he has already devalued?