On May 27, a special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) remanded Y S Jaganmohan Reddy, the leader of the breakaway Congress faction in Andhra Pradesh, into judicial custody for 14 days. The CBI says it believes that a case can be built up against Mr Reddy for disproportionate assets arising from bribery, as well as for violations of various money laundering statutes. Whether this case can be proved to the satisfaction of a court of law is not yet clear and is certainly beside the point. The real question that should be immediately asked is about the timing of the CBI’s arrest. On June 12, by-elections are to be held in 18 constituencies of the Andhra Pradesh Assembly, and to one Lok Sabha seat from Andhra Pradesh. Mr Reddy’s YSR Congress, named after his late father and former Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, is a strong contender in these elections, and he himself is his party’s star campaigner; he has now been rendered unavailable. The Congress party, which is in power at both the Centre and the state, is understandably concerned that many of its voters will switch loyalty to the breakaway faction, given that Mr Reddy has laid strong claim to his father’s legacy of efficient populism.
Accusations that the CBI has timed its arrest to cause maximum discomfiture and inconvenience to a party challenging its political masters cannot, thus, be dismissed out of hand. After all, the CBI has had a history of going slow and fast on cases depending on the political requirements of the dispensation ruling at the Centre. The threat of intensive CBI investigations into corruption-related cases, in particular, seems to be used instrumentally to shore up support for the ruling coalition, and to punish those who rebel. In this case, while Mr Reddy may certainly turn out to be guilty, that the CBI has woken up to the strength of the case against him just as his party is in a position to threaten the Congress politically will strike many as further proof that India’s premier investigative agency can no longer even pretend to independence.
This cannot be allowed to continue. There is a pervasive sense that the politically powerful are allowed to get away with corruption on a massive scale. The only corrective is to ensure that the investigative and judicial process works on such accusations in a timely, transparent and independent manner. Any indication that the CBI is being used to settle scores or as a political instrument will only strengthen an already damaging culture of cynicism about public affairs. The Congress bears the largest degree of blame for this; cases against Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav have apparently been pursued with greater or lesser urgency depending on their political orientation vis-à-vis the Congress at the time, for example. The time has come to implement the Supreme Court’s reminder to the CBI in the 1997 Hawala case that its independence was essential. If this requires a separate cadre, or an alternative method of appointing its director, then so be it. The institutional arrangements necessary to hasten the CBI’s insulation from political interference cannot be further delayed.