New Delhi: In a surprise midnight move, the government divested Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana of their powers, just hours after Verma directed his No. 2 to go on leave. The government intervened after days of intense feuding that threatened to sully the image of India’s premier investigative agency that is probing a series of high-profile corruption cases. Tuesday’s moves by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) are indicative of a sudden scramble by the government to prevent a perceived failure of governance.

However, Verma challenged his forced leave order in the Supreme Court on Wednesday, which leaves it to the top court to decide on the validity of Verma’s “punishment" given that he had not been terminated before the end of his protected tenure.

The row puts at risk CBI’s investigation into why fraud-accused Vijay Mallya was allowed to leave the country and his extradition from the UK, the 14,356 crore PNB fraud case as well as the AgustaWestland chopper scam.

In its order dated 23 October, the appointments committee of the cabinet named M. Nageshwar Rao, joint director of CBI, as the interim head of the agency.

Outlining the dramatic sequence of events, three officials familiar with the development said that at 9.30pm on Tuesday, Verma signed orders to send Asthana on leave—just a day after he had approached the PMO seeking Asthana’s suspension, the people said.

Within the next two hours, the PMO, at the behest of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), summoned top officials of the department of personnel and training (DoPT), to issue immediate orders to send Verma on leave.

By 1am on Wednesday morning, the officials had reached North Block to execute the orders, after which Rao took charge of CBI, along with the case loads of both Verma and Asthana.

The agency denied reports that the office floors of Verma and Asthana were raided and sealed to protect data and documents.

Alongside, three key officials who were investigating bribery charges against Asthana, after the agency registered a case on 15 October, were moved out of CBI.

Fresh orders were issued on Wednesday morning to transfer 13 officers including Ajay Bassi, the investigating officer in the Rakesh Asthana bribery case, who was transferred to Port Blair. S.S. Gurm, an additional superintendent of police, was transferred to Jabalpur and Manish Kumar Sinha, a deputy inspector general, was transferred to Nagpur.

With the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946, governing CBI, the central government said that it had exercised its powers under Section 4(2) of the act to divest both Verma and Asthana of their powers.

At the same time, the Centre in a statement said that “the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) has also observed that the Director CBI (Alok Verma) has been non-cooperative with the Commission, non-compliant with the requirements/ directions of the Commission and has created wilful obstructions in the functioning of the Commission which is a constitutional body."

However, even as Verma approached the Supreme Court on Wednesday to challenge his leave order, the Centre announced a special investigation team (SIT) probe under CVC against both Verma and Asthana.

“This is an unfortunate episode. The CVC’s powers are prevalent in this matter with prevailing powers of superintendence it is concerned to prevention of corruption act cases, the power of investigation is with the CVC. On Tuesday, the CVC suggested that these accusations can’t be examined by anyone under their supervision. So, to maintain the integrity of CBI, an SIT not functioning under either of these two officers will investigate the case," finance minister Arun Jaitley said in New Delhi on Wednesday.

This, the government reiterated, had been done “as an interim measure and will subsist till the CVC concludes its inquiry into all issues which have given rise to the present extra-ordinary and unprecedented situation."

Rao, a 1986 Odisha Cadre officer, was number three in the ranking order. As joint director, he was overseeing the Chandigarh branch, prior to which he was in charge of the Chennai zone.

A former CBI official said that although the director has a fixed tenure of two years, the government’s decision to send him on leave is not illegal.

“This is not illegal since it does not curtail the director’s term. Technically he has been sent on leave and not sacked. This was decided on by the chief vigilance commissioner and this is much needed because two officers can’t go on like this," the former official said, on condition of anonymity.

CBI, on its part, continued to maintain that the agency was functioning normally, while a new team had been reconstituted to look into the bribery charges against Asthana.

“CBI is functioning normally. Within CBI, a particular case team has been reconstituted. The idea is to have the best officers conduct an enquiry expeditiously, fairly and impartially. The new director’s stress is on working unitedly as a team and be fair to all aggrieved parties," said CBI spokesperson Abhishek Dayal.

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