Public confidence in the Central Bureau of Investigation, which had gone up in the wake of the successful investigation and prosecution of the cases relating to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and the Mumbai blasts of March 1993, has taken a series of beatings during 2010.
The government of Dr Manmohan Singh has been watching helplessly as the CBI is coming to be viewed increasingly by growing sections of public opinion as a highly unprofessional and politicised agency with neither the will nor the capability to improve the quality of the investigation and prosecution of the cases entrusted to it.
The intriguingly belated response of the CBI to the investigation of the major corruption cases of 2010 entrusted to it has rightly or wrongly created an impression in the minds of the public that instead of guarding its reputation as the leading investigation agency of the country, it has let itself become the leading cover-up agency.
Neither the senior officials of the agency nor the Prime Minister's Office and the Cabinet Secretariat have come out with a convincing explanation as to why the CBI moved and continues to move with disturbing slowness in taking the necessary investigative steps such as raids of the houses and offices of the suspects, freezing of their bank accounts and their interrogation in the cases relating to alleged corruption in the conduct of the Commonwealth Games and the handling of the 2G spectrum by A Raja, former minister for telecommunications.
The public cannot be blamed if it concludes that the CBI's objective seems to be not to find out the truth, but to cover up the truth for a sufficiently long time till public memory and outrage over the extent of corruption dissipates.
One saw during 2010 surprising instance of selective leaks to certain sections of the media of some of the tapped telephone conversations of Niira Radia, the lobbyist.
Those sections of the tapes which would have contained evidence of criminal wrong-doing have been carefully protected from leakage to the media, but certain sections which had no evidence of criminal wrong-doing, but merely contained material tending to damage the personal reputation of certain eminent persons were leaked to the media by unidentified elements with a suspect motive.
Though the tapping was reportedly authorised at the request of agencies dealing with tax evasion and money-laundering, the CBI most probably had an interest in the tapping in connection with its investigations.
It had an obligation to maintain the confidentiality of the intercepts in order to protect the right to privacy of innocent persons. By failing to meet this obligation, the CBI and other agencies involved have let their reputation for professionalism be damaged.
The end of the year saw yet another blow to the reputation of the CBI when it moved the Ghaziabad Special Court on December 29 for permission to close the case relating to the alleged murder, under mysterious circumstances, of Aarushi, the 14-year-old daughter of Rajesh Talwar and Nupur, a dentist couple living in Noida near Delhi on May 16, 2008.
The case was initially mishandled by the Uttar Pradesh police. It was handed over to the CBI on June 1, 2008. Public expectation that the CBI, being a reputed professional agency with better capabilities and investigating skills than the UP police, would unravel the mystery behind the murder and identify, arrest and prosecute the culprits has been belied.
The CBI has moved for the closure of the investigation on the ground that it has not been able to make any headway in the investigation and there are no prospects of its making any headway in the future even if it continued with the investigation.
The murder of Aarushi and the subsequent death under mysterious circumstances of a domestic assistant of her parents had shocked the public.
The public was equally shocked by the wildly contradictory accounts of the investigation by the police and the CBI that were leaked out to the media without any regard to the reputation of Aarushi.
The allegations, if true, made by her parents that they were not kept informed by the CBI of its decision to move for the closure of the investigation has shown shocking insensitivity on the part of the CBI.
The lethargic handling of the cases relating to corruption has created strong suspicions in the minds of the public that the CBI's investigation has been influenced by political considerations.
If true, this indicates a politicisation of the agency to a degree unsuspected till now. The CBI's apparent cluelessness in the Aarushi case speak of a worrisome deterioration in the investigation skills of the agency and in the quality of the supervision over its work.
What is even more disturbing is the seeming indifference of the government to public criticism of the functioning of the CBI in relation to these and other cases.
There has been no attempt on the part of the government to take the CBI to task for the way it has handled these cases and to convince the public that it has tightened up the monitoring of the work of the CBI.
The CBI has come under criticism from time to time since the days of the State of Emergency imposed by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975.
The enquiries ordered by the Morarji Desai government after it came to office in 1977 brought out many instances of serious misdeeds by the CBI during the emergency.
The CBI's performance again came in for strong criticism during the enquiry into the Bofors scandal in the 1980s. There were allegations even then as there are now that the CBI acts not as an investigating agency, but as a cover-up agency doing the bidding of the party in power.
These criticisms have not led to a comprehensive enquiry into the functioning of the CBI either by a group of eminent professionals with untarnished reputation or by a Joint Parliamentary Committee.
The CBI reportedly submits every year a report on its work during the year. These reports hardly figure in debates either in the public or in the Parliament.
The Chinese government has issued a White Paper -- the first of its kind -- on December 29 on corruption in China and how the government has been dealing with the problem. Even in an authoritarian country like China, the government has felt the need for convincing the public that it is aware of their concerns over corruption and that it is alive to the need for dealing with the problem in a manner that brings satisfaction to the people.
Despite India being a democracy with its government supposedly being accountable to the people, the government has shown a shocking lack of concern over public criticism of the functioning of the CBI and over evidence of a general institutional decay which has permitted corruption to thrive.
Public opinion should force the government to institute a comprehensive enquiry into the functioning of the CBI and initiate measures to restore its image in the eyes of the public. The indifference of the government to the institutional decay should not be tolerated by the public.
The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.