Once upon a time, a king committed a grave crime. He stole the state’s money and destroyed national wealth. Angry citizens clamored for justice. The king agreed. He appointed his pet slave to investigate the matter. The pet slave felt the king had done nothing wrong. The case was closed. Life went back to normal.

The above story isn’t funny. It is downright ridiculous. Even a six-year-old will tell you it makes no sense. And yet this is the Indian system of investigation and justice. Replace the king and the slave with the government and CBI respectively. The CBI reports to the government. Its senior officers’ appointments, promotions, transfers and post-retirement career options are in the hands of politicians. This same CBI is asked to investigate the government when scams emerge. It is like asking a maid to probe her master. No surprise, nothing much comes out of it. Are we not a nation of idiots then to accept this system? The current Coalgate investigations, where a cornered CBI had to admit it had the findings report edited from government before submitting it in court, is a blatant example of a system gone horribly, horribly wrong.

On the left- Chidambaram; the Master
On the right- CBI Director; The Caged Parrot

How can you expect the government to have accountability, when they can subvert investigations on them? What use is the CBI if accused politicians are able to influence it?

The need for changing this is obvious, more so now. But how do we make this happen? And will the powerful political class ever accept an independent CBI?

The urgency of CBI reforms cannot be overstated. Of course, politicians abusing power is hardly novel. In limited amounts, Indian citizens don’t even seem to mind the corruption or nepotism. We almost see it as an entitlement of those in power. It is only when it reaches monumental proportions that our morality kicks in. Well, it has reached gigantic levels. With the bigger size of the economy, the magnitude, scope and number of scams have grown. The coal allocation scam alone is about transferring value worth billions of dollars in the hands of a few private individuals, based on no clear objective criteria. A clear option for such transfers should have been auctions (where the asset can be priced) or a revenue share (where the future revenues are uncertain). None of this was done. Coal was a prize, given to friends, families and cronies of the government. In return, the coal receiver returned favors such as cash, relationships or any other political benefits.

If the state earned proper revenues from coal, the earned amounts could have transformed either of India’s infrastructure, education, healthcare or irrigation sectors. Hence, justice must be done in such a massive level of wrongdoing.

Unfortunately, the only meek slave we have to enable this justice is CBI. And as recent events have shown, the CBI is almost a private arm of the government. Until we fix this nothing much will change about corruption. The street protests, fasts, and news debates are all useless until this structural change is made. In fact, in the entire Lokpal Bill drama of the recent past, the most important change needed was this – make CBI independent. In fact, an autonomous CBI could just be the surrogate Lokpal we all seem to need but can’t get.

How do we do this? Well, first of all we must realize the nature, urgency and importance of this change. CBI autonomy is not a political party specific issue. Every party in power has an incentive to abuse the CBI. The change must be demanded from all major parties. Second, the bureaucracy must wake up. Either they have been sleeping too long, are complicit with the scamsters, or not united. A push from the bureaucrats for this change will find public support today. Pressure from babus can make the politicians bend. Right now, they are too busy serving their masters and ignoring what is good for the country. Third, and this is the controversial one, is to somehow create an incentive, or at least remove the disincentives for politicians to pass this change. Retrospective immunity, which means the autonomy, will apply to future cases and not past ones, may be one way to do it. After all, we let politicians abuse power. If we want them to stop now, the least they’d want is not to be punished for the good times we allowed them. It may seem strange to talk about immunity, but there is little chance of existing politicians agreeing to change things if they will have cops on their door the next day. Four, we also have to make sure the new autonomous CBI doesn’t start abusing power itself. It may investigate on its own, but checks and balances need to be in place so that it cannot unleash its new autonomy on anyone without reason. A set of fair and reasonable pre-conditions may still be required for them to initiate investigations.

This CBI autonomy issue was somewhat lost in the well-intentioned but perhaps over-ambitious Lokpal Bill. The current Coalgate-CBI fiasco is a golden chance to discuss it again. Let’s move one step at a time in our effort to tackle high-level corruption. The time for the first, CBI autonomy, has come.