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Mild-mannered AP Singh is the face of the new CBI. Under the tutelage of the courts, the agency's probes into the 2G and CWG scams are making waves.
It was a bold experiment by the Indian Hockey Federation to drop most members of the national team and send a fresh-faced team for the 2001 Azlan Shah Hockey Tournament. The experiment almost ended in a disaster and India returned without any worthy achievements. Team manager Amar Pratap Singh, though in the thick of it all, was helpless given the marginal role managers played in selection and tactics. A decade later, he doesn't have any such excuses as he captains a much bigger, far more political and potentially controversial team - the Central Bureau of Investigation. Experiments and course corrections are luxuries here.
Notwithstanding the many constraints that the federal investigation agency works under, AP Singh, an IPS officer of the 1974 batch, has to now make sure the demands of the many courts monitoring several high-profile investigations are met. The CBI also has to face aggressive audits of its performance by the opposition, media and civil society. Singh seems to have registered an impressive start.
The Supreme Court seems satisfied with the progress being made in the 2G scam investigations, which it is monitoring. In the 2G trial court, his investigation team is holding itself well. In the Commonwealth Games scandal probe, the agency has been making steady progress on several fronts. In Mumbai, the CBI investigation into the Adarsh scandal is cruising along well. Around the country, several other investigations too are grabbing headlines. Controversies, for now, are a sideshow. Along the way, the CBI has shed its controversy-ridden image and the face of this change is Singh. There are many reasons for this metamorphosis.
Says a cabinet minister: "We do not want to add to our troubles by being seen as interfering with ongoing investigations. So it is our studied decision to keep arms length from cases. " He says an alert Supreme Court and the extremely charged political atmosphere have forced the government to take this cautious position. A senior official who is directly involved in the CBI's functioning says the monitoring by the courts is the single biggest factor in improving the agency's performance. "This way, the agency gets political freedom to do what it wants to. Most officials are professional and want to do a good job. "
Public anger against corruption in high places has also helped the CBI function more effectively, he says. "The agency is now in a very privileged situation. Both public opinion and courts have suddenly created a lot of space for it to do good professional work, " he says.
But the changes have also made the political establishment wary of Singh. The CBI as an agency may still find ways to not significantly disturb politicians or corporates, but what about Singh himself? What will his next move in the 2G scam probe be? Will he go after the top brass of major corporates? Will the mild-mannered Singh emerge as an aggressive anti-corruption crusader under the tutelage of the courts? Those are worrying questions indeed for the political and business establishment.
There are some who fret about the judicial activism that has helped the CBI emancipate itself. They say that investigating officers now spend more time in courts than on the field. When asked about this concern, newly appointed Central Vigilance Commissioner Pradeep Kumar recently told TOI-Crest : "If the apex court calls officers, they have to report. But I have not heard about this affecting any investigation. "
A P Singh's past didn't have obvious indications that he would emerge as a middle-class messiah or a highprofile leader. But his steady police career has always exhibited his capacity to take on professional challenges. Singh became an IPS officer when he was just 22. He remained in the Bihar Cadre from 1974 to 2000, and later moved to the Jharkhand cadre when the new state was created. While posted as SDPO in Patna town from 1977 to 1978, Singh prevented agitators from entering the Patna High court. He was seriously injured in the skirmish, but his bold action prevented mayhem.
From 1978 to 1984, while posted as SP Katihar and SP Bhagalpur, Singh brought crime in these two cities under control, especially during the Bhagalpur blinding cases. While posted as SP Jamshedpur in 1984-87, Singh yet again displayed his professional skills, especially in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984. With aggressive public policing, he was able to ensure that there wasn't a single untoward incident in the district which had about 1. 2 lakh Sikhs.
Singh joined the CBI in 1987 and first grabbed headlines while investigating the Rs 600-crore Harshad Mehta bank fraud case. He stayed on in the CBI until 1995 as DIG and then took on a variety of assignments. From 1995 to 2003, Singh handled the posts of IG (special branch and CID) in Meghalaya and Chief Vigilance Officer in Indian Airlines. From 2003 to 2007, Singh was OSD to the Jharkhand chief minister and from 2007 to 2009, he was posted as Additional Director General (Headquarters) in the Border Security Force (BSF).
He re-joined the CBI in 2009 as Special Director, and supervised the investigations into a number of high profile cases - the Mumbai blasts, Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, the anti-Sikh riots, the Ayodhya attack, the Mecca Masjid blast and the Jnaneshwari train accident, for instance. Singh has received two police medals for distinguished and meritorious services in 1991 and 2008.
His subordinates call Singh a tough taskmaster, someone who never wavers once he makes up his mind. The 59-year-old Singh, who is rarely seen without a smile, is a stickler for perfection and courtesy. One colleague points out that Singh is "very polite", even when he is delivering a tough message. Another CBI officer says that the director discusses cases with his juniors with a lot of enthusiasm.
In both the 2G spectrum case and the Commonwealth Games case, Singh asked his teams to go after culprits fearlessly. "We were asked to take action according to the evidence and we did not face any problems, " says an officer.
But the CBI's conviction rates are still poor. Given the shortage of officers and the allegations of misdeeds that still cloud it, the CBI still has a very long way to go before emerging as an investigation agency that can meet global standards.
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