EDITORIAL | In CBI war, Modi govt exposed

EDITORIAL | In CBI war, Modi govt exposed

The government’s action against the two topmost officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) — director Alok Verma and special director Rakesh Asthana — came too late, literally so late in the night on Tuesday that it had all the trappings of a midnight coup, only one executed by the government itself against its own anti-corruption agency. The action was not a fair attempt to deal with an unseemly situation, but a partisan exercise to protect one officer, Asthana, considered to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and to neutralise agency chief Verma, who had ordered a probe into some serious charges against Asthana. The government ordered both officers to go on leave, and appointed another officer, Nageshwar Rao, as interim director. Ironically, Rao, too, was under Verma’s scanner. Rao was escorted into his new office in the middle of the night and immediately proceeded to disband the team probing Asthana. The actions raise several issues of legality and propriety and expose the questionable conduct of the government in the entire matter.

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The government’s position, explained by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, is that both the officers had to be kept away from their positions of power when the charges levelled by them against each other were being investigated. But that is a case of wrong and unfair even-handedness, meant to help Asthana. Asthana raised his charges after Verma made his complaint about him to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). There is a history to the confrontation between the two. The Modi government first brought in Asthana, a Gujarat cadre officer, as the interim director and sought to make him the CBI chief, but could not do so due to a court direction. It then appointed Verma as chief but made Asthana special director, effectively No. 2 in the hierarchy. Verma opposed Asthana’s appointment citing the charges against him but was overruled. Indeed, as if to make clear who Asthana was backed by and what the intent of the government was in bringing him in, he was given charge of cases against opposition leaders, fugitive Vijay Mallya as well as the Sohrabuddin encounter case, in which BJP chief Amit Shah was an accused. From then on, bad blood and a power struggle between Verma and Asthana were inevitable.

READ: 'Govt didn't intervene at the right time'

Verma instituted a probe into the corruption charges against Asthana, which included the alleged demand for a Rs 3 crore bribe; Asthana complained to the cabinet secretary against Verma, alleging interference in investigations. The CBI took the unprecedented step of registering a FIR against its special director. In the bribery case relating to meat exporter Moin Qureshi, the investigating officer, a deputy superintendent of police, was arrested for allegedly fabricating a document to support Asthana’s charges against Verma. The agency also said that Asthana was being probed in half a dozen cases, and he was intimidating the probe officers; Asthana sought a court direction against any action by the agency against him.

READ: Meet Nageshwar Rao, CBI interim chief from Warangal

The actions and counteractions have gone on for months, but the government just watched. When it did act, it only seemed to confirm the doubts about its intentions. It has forced Verma to go on leave, and this might mean the end of his career in the agency because he has got only a short tenure left. The legality of the process and procedure adopted to send him on leave is in doubt. Verma has challenged the government’s action in the Supreme Court, which will take up the case on Friday. The CBI director is selected by a committee comprising the prime minister, the chief justice of India and the leader of the opposition and is assured a fixed two-year term. It is doubtful whether anybody other than the selection panel has the power to terminate the services of the director or take an action that amounts to termination. The government has said it acted on the basis of the CVC’s recommendation. But the CVC’s supervisory power over CBI relates only to investigation of cases, not to the sacking, transfer or other actions divesting the CBI chief of his functions and powers. Worse, while officers probing Asthana have all been shunted out, and the key officer given a ‘kaala pani’ posting in the Andamans — a message to other officers — those who were working under Asthana, by and large, weren’t touched.

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The political angle in all this is hard to miss. There have been reports that the government was not happy that Verma personally accepted a representation from former union minister Arun Shourie and lawyer Prashant Bhushan seeking a probe into the Rafale fighter deal. Other reports have said that the government was not happy that some CBI investigations did not yield the results the government expected or wanted. Verma’s petition to the Supreme Court has confirmed this. It should also not be missed that while the government has levelled many charges against Verma, it has not made any adverse comment against Asthana. The government’s conduct raises several questions. The CBI functions directly under the prime minister. So, what was he doing all this while when the two top officers were at war? When he did choose to act, shouldn’t he have called a meeting of the committee that appoints the CBI chief to decide on what action was to be taken? Indeed, the presence of the National Security Adviser during the ‘midnight coup’ has given rise to speculation that he was behind the whole affair.

READ: Govt blames Verma for CBI credibility crisis?

It is quite clear whom the government is backing and why. It is also clear that the government will do everything possible to protect Asthana and continue to use the agency as a handmaiden. In doing so, the Modi government has completely lost its credibility. What remains to be seen in this sordid affair is whether or not the Supreme Court will restore the independence of the CBI and its chief when it hears Verma’s petition on Friday.

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