On November 8, the government of Andhra Pradesh withdrew its general consent provided to the Union government-controlled Central Bureau of Investigation to carry out police work in the state. On Friday, the West Bengal chief minister praised the move and in a few hours the government of West Bengal followed suit.

The Central Bureau of Investigation describes itself as the “premier investigative agency in the country today” but this is not the first time it finds itself embroiled in controversy. The organisation has earlier been accused of being politically partisan. Moreover, its powers to operate across India have been questioned before as well. This move, by states controlled by the Opposition, of barring the Central Bureau of Investigation from states might have far reaching effects both for Indian federalism as well as party politics.

How can a state withdrawn consent to a national agency such as the Central Bureau of Investigation?
Under the Indian Constitution, “police” is a state subject and does not fall under the purview of the Union government. As a result, the law that governs the Central Bureau of Investigation specifically states that the organisation can not act “without the consent of the government of that state”.

After Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal’s withdrawal, only eight states have issued a “general consent” for the Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate Union government employees. For any other case, the Central Bureau of Investigation needs seek permission from the state government.

However, in 2010, the Supreme Court weakened the power of the states in this regard, ruling that the higher judiciary can order a Central Bureau of Investigation investigation without the consent of the relevant state government.

What are the origins of the Central Bureau of Investigation?

The Central Bureau of Investigation began rather modestly during the British Raj as a force to investigate claims of government corruption in the supply of resources for World War II. Called the “Special Staff”, it was founded in 1942 with a Punjabi police officer, Qurban Ali Khan, as its chief and functioned as a part of the War Resources Committee of the Viceroy.

However, the legal scaffolding for this new investigative arm only came in 1943, after the Viceroy passed an ordinance bringing into existence the “Special Police Establishment” to “investigate the offences or classes of offences committed in connection with Departments of the Central Government, or any particular offence committed in connection with a Department of the Central Government”.

In 1946, again through ordinance, the powers of this force were vastly enhanced. Now called the “Delhi Police Special Establishment”, it was granted full police powers within Delhi and also throughout British India. However, in areas outside Delhi, the force would need permission from the government of the province it wanted to operate in. Later that year, a law, the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act 1946, was passed to give the force a permanent legal foothold.

In 1963, the Union government, using the powers of this act, set up the Central Bureau of Investigation, in order to investigate corruption amongst its bureaucrats and Public Sector Undertakings. The Central Bureau of Investigation would als investigate case involving “organised gangs or professional criminals, having ramification in several states” with the permission of the states involved, declared Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri..

How did the Central Bureau of Investigation go from these beginnings to becoming an object of controversy?
The Central Bureau of Investigation started out as an agency to fight corruption but later became embroiled in partisan politics. In 1996, for instance, the Central Bureau of Investigation was seen as dragging its feet in the case of the alleged bribery of four MPs of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Soren). The main accused in the case was former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao. In the hawala scandal in the 1990s relating to alleged bribes to politicians of both the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress, the Supreme Court in 1997 accused the Central Bureau of Investigation of not acting against politically powerful people. As a remedy, it placed the organisation under the control of the Central Vigilance Commission. However, it is unclear if the Supreme Court’s intervention had much effect.

At the time of the United Progressive Alliance government, the Supreme Court hauled up the Central Bureau of Investigation for tardiness in investigating the 2G Spectrum Case, where the Union government had allegedly undersold frequency allocation, as well as as allegations of corruption in the allocation of coal deposits. While hearing the “coal scam” case in 2013, the Supreme Court described the agency a “caged parrot speaking in its master’s voice” accusing it of tailoring its investigations to suit the “suggestions of the government officials.” In 2013, noted jurist Fali S Nariman said that the Central Bureau of Investigation was so subservient to the party in power, it functioned “not by notes on files but on nods and winks”.

The agency reached what was probably its lowest point in October, when the Central Bureau of Investigation raided its own offices in a case of alleged corruption against special director Rakesh Asthana, who is seen to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In response, the Union government launched a virtual coup against the Central Bureau of Investigation director, sealing his office at midnight and sending him on leave – a move that was seen as being against the law.

Why did Andhra and West Bengal act now?
Andhra Pradesh cited last month’s unprecedented events in the Central Bureau of Investigation to withdrawn permission for the agency to operate in the state. “This decision has been taken in wake of incidents happening in Central Bureau of Investigation since last six months,” said Telugu Desam Party member Lanka Dinakar.

While the current turmoil in the Central Bureau of Investigation is important, Andhra Pradesh’s complaints have a deeper cause: many state parties have accused the party in the power in the Union government of using the Central Bureau of Investigation to further partisan political aims. On Friday, the Telugu Desam Party accused the Union government of “using Central Bureau of Investigation as tools against political opponents by means of preparing fabricated statements”.

Similar allegations have also been made by Mayawati, the chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Almost immediately after an alliance between the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party was fixed up in Uttar Pradesh in May, the Central Bureau of Investigation decided to launch a fresh investigation into a previous case of alleged corruption against Mayawati.

In West Bengal, the Central Bureau of Investigation is investigating cases of corruption against both members of the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party with several accusations that the agency is acting as per the dictates of partisan politics.