Midnight coup at the CBI: Yet another institution falls

Midnight coup at the CBI: Yet another institution falls

Corrupted Bureau: The Modi govt’s image has been hit, but the worst may be yet to come

DH Graphics/Prakash S

"Whether you have in your hands an empire, a tribe, a family, or a servant, you deploy your talent as a tyrant, glorious or absurd: a whole world or a single person obeys your orders. Thus is established the series of calamities which rise from the need, the thirst to excel...We jostle none but satraps: each of us – according to his means – seeks out a host of slaves or is content with just one."
-- E M Cioran / A Short History of Decay

The Romanian philosopher EM Cioran, known for his philosophical pessimism, probably did not have the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in mind when he wrote that in 1949. But the agency, which had its birth in 1941 and assumed its current name on Fools’ Day, 1963, through a Ministry of Home Affairs resolution, has certainly been through a “series of calamities” since its inception as the political masters -- or those “tyrants” in South Block where the Prime Minister's Office is located -- deployed from time to time that “single person” who obeyed their orders. Unfortunately, we, the people, put too much faith into this “caged parrot that speaks in its master's voice”, as Supreme Court put it in March 2013.

That the CBI is in the midst of controversy is nothing new, but that it would fall to its nadir so fast was something even agency watchers didn’t see coming. It saw two of its former directors AP Singh and Ranjit Sinha in the UPA era facing FIRs filed by the agency itself. Now, it’s the turn of Director Alok Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana to be subject to investigations, thanks to their own power struggle, with the Modi regime’s politics playing no small role in precipitating it.

If Singh and Sinha came to face charges of corruption and fixing investigations post-retirement, Verma and Asthana have acquired the dubious distinction while still in office. Verma had the CBI file an FIR against Asthana, while Asthana’s complaint against Verma has resulted in a CVC probe against him. Interestingly, the common factor in all these cases is controversial meat exporter Moin Qureshi, who faces multiple probes by the CBI, Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax. Worse, the perception now gaining ground is that the government has put its weight behind Asthana.

The Narendra Modi government, after having made the feud within the CBI all but inevitable by placing its favoured officer to flank the director, faces the charge of inaction and deliberately looking away as Verma and Asthana fought each other. It must say what it, or the CVC, which has superintending powers over the CBI, did about Verma’s allegations against Asthana. Why did it do nothing to remove the cloud over Asthana? Was Verma right or wrong about him? Had it investigated Verma’s motives, in case his charges were motivated? It must be noted that Verma took on Asthana fully knowing that he was backed by the political leadership. 

The seeds of the current crisis of credibility were sown when Anil Sinha retired as CBI chief on December 2, 2016. The government wanted Asthana, a 1984-batch IPS officer of Gujarat cadre considered a blue-eyed boy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, as the next CBI chief. It shunted out Asthana’s senior and potential candidate RK Dutta, who later became DGP, Karnataka, to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and appointed Asthana acting director of CBI. This was challenged in the Supreme Court by NGO Common Cause on the ground that the high-powered selection committee of the prime minister, leader of opposition and the chief justice of India was not convened to select the new CBI chief. It also raised charges of corruption against him.

Just before the SC could rule on the matter, the government changed tack and appointed then Delhi Police Commissioner Alok Verma as CBI chief. Government insiders claimed that Verma was chosen as he was non-controversial and that the leadership felt that he would not rock the boat. They also felt that Asthana could effectively run the show, with the backing of the PMO.

However, the so-far silent Verma felt the heat soon after he joined the agency as Asthana is said to have blocked the elevation of some officers as joint directors. Verma did not take it lying. He immediately gave joint director AK Verma, another Gujarat cadre officer, who was not exactly Asthana’s friend, the charge of the policy division, a crucial unit in the CBI. The battle lines had been drawn. Both sides were looking for opportunities to target each other. Verma’s supporters said Asthana never missed a chance to belittle his chief; Verma, in turn, re-opened the charges against Asthana. In October last, when the CVC panel met to consider elevating Asthana to Special Director, Verma submitted a ‘secret note’ to the CVC about the charges against Asthana, including the alleged payments made to him by the Gujarati Sandesara brothers of Sterling Biotech, now economic fugitives. The CVC overruled Verma and Asthana was made the CBI’s No. 2. And he was given charge of all the important cases against opposition leaders as well as the ones that involved BJP leaders, such as Vyapam and the Sohrabuddin case.  

In July this year, Verma wrote to the CVC saying that Asthana cannot represent him in his absence on matters of appointments, contending that Asthana was himself under probe. Verma also took on the CVC for not giving the CBI enough time to do due diligence checks before inducting officers.

The next month, a furious Asthana filed a detailed complaint against Verma levelling several serious charges – from Verma allegedly taking a Rs 2 crore bribe from Hyderabad-based businessman Satish Sana, who is linked to meat exporter Moin Qureshi, to stalling a raid against RJD chief Lalu Prasad. The CBI issued an unprecedented press release rebutting the charges and made public that Asthana was facing investigation in at least half-a-dozen cases. Verma retaliated on October 15 by giving his nod to register an FIR against Asthana charging him with forging Sana’s statement to implicate the CBI chief. Asthana’s team member DySP Devender Kumar was arrested. The CBI turned the charge of taking a bribe from Sana on Asthana and told a court that his team was running an extortion racket in the name of investigations.

As the ‘civil war’ in CBI spilled over into the public domain, the government was at a loss on how to control the situation. On Tuesday, as things were going out of hand, the CVC first met to consider the developments and recommended sending both Verma and Asthana on leave. The government machinery went into overdrive late in the night, issuing orders to that effect and appointing joint director M Nageshwara Rao as interim chief. With National Security Adviser reportedly taking charge of the situation, Rao took office in the dead of night and immediately sealed the offices of Verma and Asthana and transferred at least 10 officials who were probing Asthana. While appointing Rao, the government chose to ignore AK Sharma, who was seen to have aligned with Verma. Soon after Rao’s appointment was made public, allegations of misuse of office and corruption surfaced against him, too. Rao is considered close to a senior RSS functionary and a votary of Hindutva politics.

The drama did not end there as Verma and Asthana both approached the Supreme Court. The CVC lost a bit of its sheen as the Supreme Court has now asked it to complete the probe against Verma within two weeks, but under the supervision of a former Supreme Court judge. The latest incident of Verma’s personal security officers catching Intelligence Bureau officers snooping on him have not added glory to either the government or to the IB. Indeed, the optics are all too bad for the government.