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The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s appointment of a new head of India’s major investigation agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, has deservedly come in for some flak. It is important to state that this is not because of who has been picked to head it — the senior-most of the three candidates on offer from the 1974 batch of the Indian Police Service. It is, very properly, a question of procedure that is being raised. The appointment came as a report by a select committee of Parliament was being submitted to the Rajya Sabha on proposed amendments to the Lok Pal Bill; the House was due to consider the amendments and then perhaps send the Bill back to the Lok Sabha to become law. One major change would be to the process by which the CBI director would be appointed. Instead of being done directly by the prime minister, it is proposed that a collegium consisting of the prime minister, the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, and the Chief Justice of India sit on the appointment. This is an important step towards the autonomy of the CBI, and it should be welcomed.
However, as a letter from the leaders of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha to the prime minister pointed out, the government has gone ahead and appointed a head to the CBI, with a two-year term to serve, even while Parliament deliberates changing the process. This is not, of course, illegal. Nor does there appear to be even a whiff of impropriety to the decision, either. But it is, certainly, another act by the UPA government that can be seen as undermining the prospect of reform. The government’s leaders have spoken often of their desire to pass a strong Lok Pal legislation quickly. Those statements can only be believed less when an appointment is made that completely ignores the principles on which that legislation is supposed to be based. The prime minister, in a strongly worded response to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders’ letter, has pointed out that the CBI cannot be left without a head while Parliament debates and passes the Lok Pal Bill. The current director’s term is due to expire on November 30, the prime minister argued, and therefore an appointment was made on the basis of the currently accepted procedure.
While the prime minister’s response is completely accurate and fair as far as it goes, it does not go far enough. Did the government explore other avenues for the appointment — perhaps anticipating the requirements of the new legislation by consulting the Opposition and the Chief Justice, perhaps seeing if a temporary head could be appointed under the current law? If not, then the UPA is once again guilty of doing exactly as it likes even as it promises that reform is just around the corner. The prime minister has said that the BJP’s demand that the new appointment be kept “in abeyance... does not arise”. But the government needs cross-party co-operation to pass the Lok Pal Bill, and indeed many more legislative Bills. It can achieve this best if it, in turn, co-operates — especially when the Opposition has a point.