PMO did not chip in on time in Asthana-Verma war: Rai

Vinod Rai

Narendra Modi government appointed senior IPS officer Rakesh Asthana, who is “perceived to be the blue-eyed boy of the powers that be”, as Special Director in CBI as the then agency chief Alok Verma's “credentials in terms of playing footsie to the government were not clear”, former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai writes.

Rai, in his new book, also faulted the Prime Minister Narendra Modi's office for not intervening at the right moment in the internecine war between Verma and Asthana, as the episode, which involved corruption allegations against each other, led to the "present nadir in reputation" of the agency.

As the factional fight peaked with allegations and counter-allegations, a complaint to Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) against Verma and an FIR against Asthana in 2018, both the officers were sent on leave by the government. On his challenge, Supreme Court reinstated Verma as procedures were not followed but the government sacked him days later following a meeting of high-level selection panel while Asthana was moved out of the agency.

In his new book 'Rethinking Good Governance: Holding to Account India's Public Institutions', Rai writes that what adds a “comical twist” to the entire episode was that the officer (M Nageshwar Rao) temporarily vested with interim charge to manage the CBI after Verma's ouster also has “aspersions cast on his background”.

Rai believes that the “seeds of discord” and “dissonance” were sown when Asthana was appointed Special Director despite objections from Verma, who “red-flagged” the former's integrity. Allegations against Asthana should have been investigated and only then a decision on his appointment should have been taken, he writes.

It was speculated that an attempt was made to keep Asthana as the CBI Acting Director for a while after Anil Sinha demitted office and then appoint him as full-time chief. “Not being able to do so and in some ways being forced to appoint Verma, whose credentials in terms of playing footsie to the government were not clear, the decision was taken to keep Asthana as the number two and entrust him with sensitive cases,” Rai writes.

Quoting “less-than-charitable” interpretations, he goes on to say some believed that Asthana could be relied upon to “keep an eye” on Verma and the “course which was set out was suspect in its intentions” from the beginning.

Though the CVC has superintendence over the CBI, Rai writes that “ultimate control” wrests with the Prime Minister's Office and intervention from that level “should have come much before the rot began to spread”.

Analysing the CBI, he says there is a decline in the professional capability of officers being appointed to the agency with a “preference for loyal officers” and this results in the “dangerous trend” of acquittals in CBI cases becoming the order of the day as one saw in the 2G case.

“It is of serious concern that despite its Directors being chosen by a high-profile panel comprising the PM, Leader of the Opposition in the Lower House and the Chief Justice of India, the selected functionaries were found woefully inadequate for the assignment,” he writes. 

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