Rarely are directors of the Central Bureau of Investigation named as accused in cases involving high corruption and even rarer are cases when two of them are under investigation. But former director AP Singh, and his successor Ranjit Sinha, are both under the scanner for different cases, with a common link – a Delhi-based meat exporter Moin Qureshi, whose name surfaced just before the 2014 elections, is a common link to both of them.

While Sinha came under investigation after a direction of the Supreme Court, AP Singh was named in a first information report filed earlier this month, following a case registered by the Enforcement Directorate. Singh, who had been appointed as a member of the Union Public Service Commission by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, had figured in the investigations earlier, but had not been named in the FIR. Now, a little over two years after his involvement came to light, Singh has also been been named in the FIR by the CBI.

Directors in the dock

The case so far revolved around a series of Blackberry Messenger chats exchanged between Qureshi and Singh, when the latter was heading the CBI. While Singh had passed these chats off as personal messages “between friends”, the CBI claimed otherwise. The investigating agency said that Qureshi served as a middleman for various deals, using his proximity to key bureaucrats in the government to act as an intermediary for a price.

The CBI was aware of at least two cases that Qureshi was trying to push through for which he had reached out to Singh for help. One of these cases involved the Delhi International Airport and the lounge facilities it offers to transiting passengers. According to CBI officials, who chose to speak on the condition of anonymity, Qureshi was also trying to get a contract for baggage handling in another case.

While Qureshi was working with Emaar for setting up the lounge at Terminal 3, he had also fronted for the Dubai-based Airport logistics company Dnata for setting up baggage handling facilities. However, Dnata had been denied permission earlier by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government following an Intelligence Bureau report pointing out that Dnata had Pakistani links.

To get around this, Qureshi floated a company, Indian Premier Services Private Ltd, and Dnata picked up a 50% stake in it in its bid to enter the Indian market in 2013. In its earlier attempt, Dnata had won four bids to manage services in several airports in India, including Mumbai and Delhi. However the IB’s adverse reports managed to hold them off until Qureshi roped in Singh. According to the CBI, Singh approached a fellow Indian Police Services official, the then Director, Intelligence Bureau Nehchal Sandhu, for help. Sandhu pointed out that the IB could not reverse its position and Singh then informed Qureshi accordingly.

Singh is also alleged to have influenced some cases that were under the CBI’s investigation during his tenure. The CBI has also named industrialist Pradeep Koneru, who was allegedly helped by Qureshi by using Singh’s influence as the CBI chief.

Similarly, Singh’s successor Ranjit Sinha faces allegations of influencing several cases that were under investigation by the CBI. A series of gate entries in the visitors’ log maintained at his residence revealed a host of accused persons being entertained by Sinha. It has been alleged that Sinha could have influenced several of the investigations, leading to further investigations mandated by the Court.

The fact that the cases are surfacing now can also be partly explained by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government’s bid to corner the Congress. While Singh and Sinha were Congress appointees, Qureshi is also believed to be close to several Congress leaders. Any revelations from the investigation could derail the Congress’ bid to revive its fortunes after an abysmal performance in 2014.

But both the cases against former CBI chiefs also indicate a much deeper systemic rot that the NDA government will have to try and address.

Fixed tenures

In September 2005, the Congress-led UPA government decided to fix a two-year tenure for top bureaucrats in key positions. The move was explained as an effort to ensure stability as well as prevent political influence. A fixed tenure assured to the chief of an agency or a secretary to the government of India, it was argued, would make them less pliable to political pressures. But critics had pointed out several flaws in the decision, which were ignored by the UPA.

The government chose fixed tenures for heads of key organisations such as the Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing and the CBI. It also gave certain positions, like the union home secretary, a “stable” two year tenure.

But the move came in for criticism at that time as it was perceived as favouring ESL Narsimhan, who would otherwise have retired as Intelligence Bureau Director within two months of his appointment. Narasimhan happened to replace his batchmate Ajit K Doval who had only served as director for eight months. Had the move been announced a few days earlier, Doval would have gone on to serve for another 16 months or so and Narasimhan would have retired without having made it as director. The buzz is that Doval, now the National Security Advisor, is keen to rework the two -year tenure.

The two-year tenure were seen as being instrumental in appointing officials who were pliable or amenable to fixing cases to suit the government in power or those close to them. The cases against Singh and Sinha amplify those concerns. Sinha’s selection was controversial and as recently as May last year, it was criticised as “faulty” by former CBI chiefs.

With a two-year tenure guaranteed by the UPA’s decision, it isn’t clear whether this has served the purpose of protecting investigations from political interference, or increased its possibilities. Unless a transparent and merit-based system is established to appoint senior officials in key positions, political manipulations and corruption in high places will continue to be a reality.