New Delhi: The row involving top officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) escalated on Wednesday and moved to the political centre stage with opposition parties, particularly the Congress, slamming the governance record of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

With the anti-corruption platform key to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development agenda, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and opposition are expected to lock horns over the issue in their campaigns in the coming assembly elections in five key states and the upcoming winter session of Parliament.

On Wednesday, opposition parties sought to corner the government over the issue of independence of public institutions and questioned its move to send director Alok Verma on forced leave and divesting him of his powers.

“CBI chief Alok Verma was getting papers collected on Rafale scam. He has been sent on a forced leave. Prime Minister’s message is clear that whoever comes near Rafale will be removed. The country and the constitution are in danger," Congress president Rahul Gandhi wrote on Twitter.

In the early hours of Wednesday, in a surprise move, Verma and CBI special director Rakesh Asthana were divested of their powers and joint director M. Nageshwar Rao appointed as interim director. Moving swiftly, the Union government also announced that the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) will initiate an independent probe by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the allegations that Asthana had levelled on Verma in his letter to the CVC in September and the bribery charges on Asthana, as per the CBI FIR filed on 15 October.

Earlier in the day, finance minister Arun Jaitley held a press conference to announce cabinet decisions and sought to respond to the attacks by the opposition parties. He said that as the country’s premier investigative agency, the action against Verma and Asthana was taken “to maintain its institutional integrity." Jaitley also rubbished the opposition’s claims that the agency was being remote controlled by the BJP-led government.

“Those in opposition questioning this move, do they want either of these two officers to be supervising their very own cases? Nothing can be more unfair than an accused being a supervisory head of agency which is investigating. This is an extraordinary situation," Jaitley told reporters.

By linking it to the Rafale deal and alleging that the government was acting against those who were to investigate the Rafale allegations, the larger narrative which the opposition parties are trying to build is around the functioning of public institutions, particularly investigative agencies.

“The illegal removal of CBI chief by Modi government to protect their own handpicked officer, against whom serious charges of corruption are being investigated, points to attempts at a serious cover-up to protect his direct links to the BJP’s top political leadership," Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said.

Political analysts say that the incident has led to a national institution being tossed between the opposition parties and the ruling party.

“This is an unfortunate situation. It is a national institution upholding virtues of governance. This is not an overnight crisis. It could have been handled better. The scenario is now being reduced to political party issues. This is not an electoral issue but a national issue," said N. Bhaskara Rao, a New-Delhi based political analyst. He added that the issue was unlikely to play an immediate role on the electoral front.

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