India’s premier investigation agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is in the midst of a crisis. At the very centre of it are its two highest ranking officials – Special director Rakesh Asthana and his boss the director of the CBI Alok Verma. Now, both have been sent on leave and their offices have been sealed. Nageshwar Rao is now the interim head of the CBI. In addition to this, various officers within the agency have been transferred.
Going back to last year, the government, despite recommendations from the CBI director, did not appoint certain IPS officers into the CBI. The director sent a confidential note to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) as a panel met to discuss the promotion of Asthana as Verma’s deputy, i.e. Special Director at the CBI.
The note contained information that alleged corruption on the part of Asthana in the Sterling Biotech Case of 2017. Based on information found at the premises of the company, the note said Asthana was paid more than Rs. 3 crores by the company. The company was in the midst of a crisis itself as it was under investigation for defaulting on loans. The CVC, stating that the allegations couldn’t be verified, cleared Asthana.
Earlier this year, Verma registered an FIR against Asthana as an accused in a case of corruption. The allegations are that he demanded a bribe of Rs. 5 crore through middlemen from a Hyderabad based businessman Moin Quereshi for a case. The CBI has alleged that Rs. 3 crore was already paid.
It seems, from various accounts, there wasn’t much synergy among the two top officials at the CBI from the beginning. With regards to the Quereshi case, the two disagreed on whether the custodial interrogation of four of the accused should be given to the agency’s Director of Prosecution (DoP). Asthana was against it while Verma supported the idea. The Indian Express editorial stated its skepticism of the CBI being able to solve its own problems and favored the Supreme Court stepping in –
“The CBI has hit a new low, even by its none-too-glorious standards. The latest tussle between Verma and Asthana shows that the agency has learnt no lessons. The CBI needs to sets its house in order, but its past record does not inspire confidence. It’s time for the court to step in”.
The government’s position is that both senior officials will be investigated and the CVC will carry out the same. Shantonu Sen, former Joint Director of the CBI is in favor of both officials leaving and bringing in new faces. This isn’t the first time the top brass of the CBI has come under scrutiny and criticism. In the midst of the 2G and coal scams, the agency and its former director Ranjit Sinha in particular were under a cloud. The Supreme Court, speaking on the agency’s handling of the coal scam called it a ‘caged parrot’. The Hindu editorial points out the perception of the CBI –
“The CBI labours under a dual image: an independent agency in the perception of those disillusioned with the conduct of the jurisdiction police, and a ‘caged parrot’ or a handmaiden of the ruling party at the Centre…”
The court does come into the picture as Asthana took the CBI to court asking for the charges against him to be dropped. The case will be heard next Monday and the Delhi high court stated that the case will go ahead but Asthana will not be arrested at least until the Monday hearing.
The decision regarding removing Verma has come under scrutiny. A report from the Wire states that he was on the verge of initiating a parliamentary enquiry into the Rafale deal signed by the Modi government. This was based on a complaint received by him from former BJP minister Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
Apart from protecting Asthana from investigation, the Rafale complaint by Shourie, Sinha & myself, entertained by the CBI Director, must be another reason for the Govt to remove him with such alacrity by this midnight order https://t.co/vKrR4a9God— Prashant Bhushan (@pbhushan1) October 24, 2018
Is there a co-relation betn Rafale deal and removal of Alok Verma? Was Alok Verma about to start investigations into Rafale, which cud become problem for Modi ji?— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) October 24, 2018
Asthana’s close proximity to the Modi government and BJP Chief Amit Shah, going back to their days in the Gujarat government has raised questions. In the midst of the transfers that have taken place, those loyal to and who worked under Asthana have gotten crucial posts in the shake up, while some belonging to Verma’s camp have been transferred elsewhere.
If there is a conspiracy, the core tenant of the CBI – its independence, or what was left of it, might be lost. Swati Chaturvedi, in a column for NDTV, writes on what’s taking place behind the scenes quoting Shourie’s words of this episode showing what the CBI is really like -
“The consensus is that the CBI can no longer claim any credibility. Shourie's words are echoed by senior officials within the CBI who talk of a "contagion spreading" as sensitive cases are reduced to targeted witch hunts for political reasons”.
More columns by Varun Sukumar