About a month ago, two significant pieces of information emerged, both discussed in the media intensely but briefly, and then forgotten. The first referred to the conviction under bribery charges of the head of the then ruling party; the other related to new “revelations” by the Swedish chief investigator, recounting from memory his impressions of how the Government of India pursued the Bofors investigation.
It is surely a landmark event that the head of a national party is caught on camera accepting a bribe, leading upto a criminal conviction. The sentence was for four years; surely the law should provide for longer terms, particularly when the person concerned and the nature of the offence demand that a strong deterrent message should be sent to the public. Bangaru Laxman had pleaded for “leniency” on the ground that this was a “first offence” — the apparent practiced ease with which the bundle of notes was tucked into his chest-of-drawers appeared clearly to indicate that what the camera caught was a usual, normal, day-to-day event.
The other noteworthy feature is that it took all of 12 years for the person to be convicted. The evidence was clear cut, and on camera. The moment the veracity of the tape was established, the case was complete. It is a strong indictment of our justice structure that it took more than a decade for it to reach this stage; clearly the system needs to be streamlined.
It is moot that with so much technology available in the form of mobiles, 3G etc., why more “sting” operations are not mounted on a systematic basis? Surely proper safeguards are required, but this weapon needs to be used to bring terror to petty transactional thieves at the thana, tehsil, block, transport office etc. We need to note that in developed countries, stings and wire taps are regularly used by the enforcement machinery for entrapment, leading to conviction.
Coming to the Bofors matter, the ex-Swedish investigator astonishingly stated that the various Indian investigators, who allegedly came to Sweden to investigate the matter, never took the trouble of meeting any official Swedish agency or authority in search of information — the implication clearly is that if this had been done, they would have succeeded in short order to establish wrongdoing. The other key point that emerged is that despite much information on the Swiss accounts of Q and the three other accounts given to the Indians, the “last mile” was not investigated to clinch the identity of the ultimate beneficiaries. The conclusion is inescapable: the investigating authorities did not want to know the truth, and would go to any extent — even to travel half way around the world — to avoid getting the facts. It is noteworthy that in light of the US authorities opening up the secrecy of Swiss accounts in 2005-06, it should be a fairly simple matter even now to re-open the case, and to make a strong demarche to the Swiss to get to the root of the accounts — the chances of success are likely to be high.
This brings us to the quality of investigation that this country is cursed with, which is designed to ensure that high-profile cases are deliberately subverted or sabotaged. In the Bofors case, at least 10 times the CBI made references to government, for decision on each intermediate stage — bail, appeal on interim orders, among others. Such is the extent of micromanagement of the CBI in critical cases by the government that it is obvious that no high-profile case will ever reach the stage of successful prosecution. The Bofors case is a standing example.
One can understand the need for initial approval for registering an FIR or a chargesheet through Section 197 CrPC or “Single Directive”, even though this should be with a time limit, after which approval would be deemed automatic. After the initial approval, there is no case at all for the CBI to approach the government at every turn of the road — 197 CrPC or Single Directive does not require it.
The conclusion is inevitable. We will have no semblance of justice in important matters, unless the CBI (and the ED etc.) are given operational autonomy and made accountable for quality of investigation. In Indian conditions, complete autonomy would lead to recklessness; there ought to be a group of independent, knowledgeable and experienced persons to control the agency. It is imperative that government’s direct management in every respect of such agencies should be terminated. This also includes control over the personnel of the agency, and right to reward ‘loyalty’ by gubernatorial or other positions.
If the Lokpal has to come into existence, it is essential to ensure independence from government of the investigating agency. Equally the selection of the Lokpal has to be by a neutral collegium. A neutral umpire, the Lokpal is an imperative need today —however coupled with independence to the CBI and ED. These must be ensured— without these features, we may even be better off without a Lokpal.
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The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own