It’s civil war in CBI, credibility crisis deepens

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 E M Cioran, known for his philosophical pessimism, never had CBI in mind when he wrote his analysis on humankind’s decadence in 1949. But the agency, which has its birth in 1941 and assumed the latest name on 1 April, 1963 through a Ministry of Home Affairs resolution, went through a “series of calamities” since its inception as the political masters, or those “tyrants” in the South Block where the Prime Minister’s Office is located, deployed those “single person” who obeys their orders from time to time. Ironically, public put a lot of weight behind this “caged parrot that speaks in master’s voice”, as Supreme Court put it in March 2013, from time to time.

It’s nothing new that the CBI is in the midst of controversies, allegations and counter-allegations but agency watchers may be surprised at how it stooped to this nadir so fast. The last ten years or so had seen so many downs in its history. The past couple of years witnessed the CBI even challenging the speed of light in its descent. It saw two of its former Directors A P Shah and Ranjit Sinha, both appointed during Congress-led UPA era, facing FIRs filed by the agency and its current top-two – Director Alok Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana – nose-dived into leading a factional fight that has further eroded the already fragile credibility of the country’s premier investigating agency.

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If Singh and Sinha face cases of corruption and fixing investigations after their retirement, it is curious to note that both Verma and Asthana accuse each other of bribery to settle cases while in office itself. Asthana faces a CBI FIR while Verma is now facing a probe by Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) on a complaint filed by the former. Interestingly, the common thread in all these cases is controversial meat exporter Moin Qureshi, who faces multiple probes by investigating agencies like CBI, Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax Department. Incidentally, a perception is gaining ground that the government has put its weight behind Asthana, whom Verma says is being investigated in at least half-a-dozen cases.

The government faces serious questions of inaction and silence as it looked the other way when the top officers fought each other. It need to be known what the government or the CVC did convincingly about Verma’s allegations on Asthana. Despite being the No 2 officer in the premier investigating agency, the government did not find it fit to remove the clouds over Asthana. The public has the right to know whether Verma was right or wrong on Asthana. Had it investigated Verma’s motives in case these allegations were motivated? The government failed in controlling the officers and landed the CBI in an insurmountable situation. It is interesting to note that Verma has taken on Asthana fully knowing he has the backing of the political leadership.

The latest episode of high drama within CBI has its seeds in the succession drama after Anil Sinha retired as CBI boss on 2 December, 2016. The NDA government wanted Asthana, a 1984-batch IPS officer of Gujarat cadre considered a blue-eyed boy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, as the CBI chief. It shunted out Asthana’s senior and potential candidate R K Dutta, who later became Director General of Police in Karnataka, to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and appointed him as acting CBI Director. This was was immediately challenged in Supreme Court by an NGO Common Cause on the ground that the high-powered Selection Committee of the Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition and Chief Justice of India was not convened to select the new boss. It also raised allegations of corruption against him.

Government sources then indicated that this was part of the strategy to elevate Asthana and blunt any opposition to his appointment. The irony was that Anil Sinha’s retirement was not an out-of-the-blue event but the government chose not to convene the meeting before his super-annuation. As pressure mounted on the government, it changed its plan and announced the appointment of the then Delhi Police Commissioner Alok Verma as CBI chief. Government insiders claimed that Verma was chosen as he was non-controversial and that they felt he will not rock the boat. They also felt Asthana could run the show with the backing of the Prime Minister’s Office. Incidentally, Congress’ Leader in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge had opposed Verma’s appointment in the Selection Committee citing his inexperience in CBI.

However, the so-far silent Verma felt the heat soon after he joined the agency as Asthana is said to have blocked elevation of some officers as Joint Directors. Verma did not lie low and immediately gave Joint Director A K Verma, another Gujarat cadre officer who is at logger heads with Asthana, the charge of policy division, a crucial unit in CBI. The seeds for the future battles have already been sown. Both sides were looking for opportunities to target each other. Verma’s supporters said Asthana never left any opportunity to belittle his chief. As the battle raged, Verma replugged the allegations against him Asthana. An opportunity was waiting for Verma as the issue of promotions came up before the CVC. Asthana was a contender for the Special Director post, the virtual number 2 in the agency. But Verma has other plans. He submitted a “secret note” to the CVC about the allegations against Asthana, including surfacing of his name in a diary recovered during an investigation which recorded payments made to people. However, the CVC did not find any merit in this and promoted Asthana. Verma had lost this round of battle in October 2017.

The war was simmering and once again in July, Verma wrote to the CVC informing it that Asthana cannot represent the Director in his absence during meetings called to deliberate on induction of officers into the CBI. Sources said one of Verma’s contention was that Asthana was facing allegations and he could not be part of the deliberations on appointments. Verma also took on the CVC for not giving the CBI not enough time to do due diligence checks on officers being proposed for induction.

Asthana was furious. The very next month, he filed a detailed complaint against Verma levelling several serious charges – from taking a Rs two crore bribe from one Satish Sana who is allegedly linked to controversial meat exporter Moin Qureshi to attempting to stall 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 nod to register an FIR on charges of forging the statement of Sana. Asthana’s team member DySP Devender Kumar was arrested with the CBI telling a court that extortion is being done at the behest of investigations.

As the ‘civil war’ in CBI spilled over to public domain, the government was at a loss on how to control the situation. Last Tuesday as things were going out of hand, the CVC first met to consider the developments and recommended sending Verma and Asthana on leave. The government machinery went on an overdrive late evening, issuing orders to that effect and appointing an interim chief M Nageshwar Rao, who took over the office in the dead of night and immediately sealing the officers of his superiors and transferring officials probing Asthana. Reports suggested that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was in the thick of things. While appointing Rao, the government chose to ignore A K Sharma, who has supposedly aligned with Verma. Soon after his appointment was made public, allegations of misuse of office and corruption surfaced against Rao, who is considered close to a senior RSS functionary and a votary of Hindutva politics.

The drama did not end with Verma and Asthana later approaching the Supreme Court. The CVC has also lost a bit of sheen as the Supreme Court has now asked it to complete the probe against Verma within ten days under the supervision of a former Supreme Court judge. The latest incident of Intelligence Bureau officials being picked up by Verma’s Personal Security Officers and claims of snooping have not added to the image of the government or the agencies. The optics are too bad for the government and the CBI.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald’s Spotlight on Oct 28, 2018)

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