In an unprecedented development in the early morning yesterday, the CBI chief Alok Verma was dramatically thrown out, his office sealed, and several officers transferred from the headquarters. The Govt tried to create a narrative that this sudden action was a result of an ego clash between the two senior most officers of CBI. However, people in general were not ready to buy this argument as they found it outrightly false.
The only other occasion when CBI director was removed unceremoniously was during NDA 1 when Trinath Mishra was removed for taking action against a corporate house friendly to the Govt in power. It’s Ironical that Alok Verma was divested of charge during NDA 2. Rakesh Asthana, a 1984 IPS officer from Gujarat cadre, is a blue eyed boy of Prime Minister Modi who was brought into the CBI after BJP came to power. Soon Asthana became the most powerful man in the CBI but also got embroiled in multiple controversies.
His name appeared in the documents recovered from the premises of Sterling Biotech, whose promoters have now fled India after defaulting on loans worth over Rs 5,000 crore. A diary found during the raid clearly showed that Nitin Sandesara, the owner of company had extended several favours to Asthana, including hosting a wedding of his daughter. Asthana’s name also cropped up in several other cases and almost half a dozen corruption cases were under probe against him.
With such serious evidences, CBI chief Alok Verma vehemently opposed the elevation of Asthana to the post of special director of CBI. However, the committee headed by the CVC, KV Chowdary overruled him and promoted Asthana. The political backing which Asthana got made him unstoppable in the department and he brazenly continued to bully around in CBI. He compiled his list of favourite officers to be posted in the CBI which further pushed Alok Verma to write to CVC for excluding Asthana from representing CBI in the official meetings. Verma also objected against the officers recommended by Asthana because of their involvement in criminal cases.
The latest trigger in the matter came when Asthana’s name appeared in the case of Moin Qureshi, a meat exporter who has been under the scanner of investigation agencies for years. Last week, a Hyderabad based businessman Sana Satish who was involved in the Qureshi case, claimed that he paid huge bribes to CBI officers, including Asthana, to settle his case.
Alok Verma got FIR registered against Asthana, and CBI arrested one of its DSP rank officers, Devender Kumar, who allegedly forged documents to implicate CBI chief Verma. Meanwhile, Asthana also wrote to the CVC, giving details of his allegations against the CBI chief. This particular complaint became instrumental in CVC’s recommendation which forced Verma out of office.
This entire fight was projected as an ego clash between two senior officers, but in reality, it was CBI chief who was trying to act against a senior officer suspected of illegal actions while the central Govt, instead of supporting the CBI Chief was busy in a ruthless cover up to Asthana, and continued the assault on the autonomy of the premier investigation agency.
Modi government’s sudden move has raised several questions. The most important is — Does the Prime Minister or the Cabinet Committee on Appointment have the right to remove a CBI chief? In 1997, the Supreme Court laid down detailed norms on the appointment of CBI chief and to make the CBI independent and more professional, the court fixed tenure of two years for CBI chief. It also laid down a selection committee which comprised of Prime Minister, the opposition leader and the Chief Justice of India to decide on CBI chief.
The manner in which CBI Chief was abruptly removed raises many doubts because he was close to ordering a formal enquiry into the alleged Rafale scam in which Prime Minister Modi is directly involved.
The infighting in the Central Bureau of Investigation has not only discredited the country’s premier investigating agency but also dented the carefully cultivated image of Narendra Modi as a decisive leader and a tough administrator. Modi came on the strength of a media blitzkrieg which projected his larger than life image against then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was labeled as a weak, ineffective Prime Minister heading a dysfunctional coalition.
The present crisis in the CBI, with its chief Alok Verma fighting his second-in-command Rakesh Asthana, shows that Prime Minister has faltered badly. A former Union home secretary who requested to be anonymous said “This CBI battle is a glaring example of poor governance”. Critics of the Modi government claim that Asthana has been purposely placed in the CBI to handle sensitive cases against the BJP’s political rivals.
Today, the Supreme Court gave a direction to the Central Vigilance Commission to complete its probe against CBI director Alok Kumar Verma within 2 weeks. It called the matter as of national importance that can’t be delayed. The Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi , Justice S K Kaul and K M Joseph also asked the preliminary probe report to be submitted in the next 10 days to decide whether it requires further probe or not. The SC deputed retired SC Judge A K Patnaik to supervise the CVC inquiry against Alok Verma.
The former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee said that today’s Supreme Court’s order on CBI chief Alok Verma’s plea was very sensible and pragmatic. The court also instructed the interim Director, Nageshwar Rao from taking any major policy decisions. A retired bureaucrat said the crisis could have been easily resolved had the home secretary or the cabinet secretary called the warring officials and told them to step back. But for that to happen, they would have needed a clearance from the Prime Minister himself which was obviously not forthcoming.
Prime Minister’s mishandling of the crisis has given ammo to his political rivals. Congress chief Rahul Gandhi was spot on when he described CBI as “an institution in terminal decline that’s at war with itself”. It will be interesting to see as how the situation unfolds in the next few weeks as the future of one of the most hallowed institutions of India is at stake.