New Delhi: On Wednesday, when M. Nageshwar Rao walked out of North Block, a bouquet of flowers in his hand—the standard congratulatory token from the government on an officer’s promotion—the irony didn’t escape anyone. This was the only routine sarkari touch in a week that witnessed unprecedented scenes of chaos at the 6,000-strong Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Over a tense 48 hours in Delhi, the CBI witnessed two top investigators—director Alok Verma and special director Rakesh Asthana—divested of their authority, the 2am appointment of Rao, and finally, on Friday, the Supreme Court (SC) taking charge.

For the next two weeks, the CBI will continue rudderless while the fate of Verma, who has been fighting a bitter battle with Asthana for a year now, will be decided. Rao is not to take any major policy decisions in an agency that is investigating some of the most important cases of political and economic significance, including, potentially, the controversial purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets by the Narendra Modi government. As Alok Verma’s fate and reputation hang in the balance, a visibly upset Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) is now preparing to formally justify to the apex court about Verma’s sudden, unceremonious ouster from office.

Genesis of Verma vs Asthana

As is the norm, four of the senior most batches in the Indian Police Services (IPS) are considered for the post of director CBI. Of them, the officers who have maximum vigilance experience or have served 10 years in the CBI, are in the running. The CVC then picks out the three strongest candidates and a panel of the CVC, the leader of the opposition and the Chief Justice of India, appoint the one man most suited for the job.

Verma emerged as a strong contender in 2016, having served as the director general (DG) of Tihar Jail (Delhi) and then as the chief of Delhi police. However, he had no experience of working at the CBI. Meanwhile, even though Rakesh Asthana filled in as interim director after the previous director Anil Sinha retired, he was out of the running for the top job as he didn’t make the seniority grade by two years. To mollify a smarting Asthana, in a swift move and without Verma’s consent, the government set the stage for the battle to follow. Asthana was moved up the ladder from additional to special director, a notch below Verma. And as Asthana’s and Verma’s associations and reputations preceded them, the war began.

“It is no secret that Rakesh Asthana has a very strong link with the higher-ups. When a director is appointed, some of those who are next in the line of command are given to you and some, you have the authority to choose. From the very beginning, Verma was not given a choice in the matter, even though he had handpicked some of his own people for the vacant posts. That sowed the seeds of discontent," a former senior CBI official told Mint, on condition of anonymity.

Senior officers in the Delhi police, who have served in some capacity under Alok Verma, added that Verma had a penchant—even as DG prisons and Commissioner Delhi police—for acrimony. Backed by senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, a disgruntled Verma wasted no time to challenge Asthana’s ascension to power. “A turf war of this kind is unprecedented. Usually between four additional and special directors, work is cut out and everyone is treated at par, except for when the director is out of the country and powers of acting director are vested with the next in command," the official said.

The former CBI official, quoted above, however, said that the CBI director was “all powerful"—a factor which was overlooked as Asthana cried foul over Verma hindering investigations.“He can divest the powers of special and additional directors if he feels that the case is sensitive. In the IRCTC tender issuance case against Lalu Prasad Yadav, Alok Verma was well within his rights to intervene," he added.

Corruption and machination

At this point however, despite Rao’s interim appointment, a headless CBI continues to grapple with the sullied past of not just Verma and Asthana, but Rao as well. Senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan has come out with damning charges against the new interim director, with claims that Rao has several cases of “disproportionate assets" to his name, in addition to which director Alok Verma had also called for Rao’s removal.

“You cannot have a man suspected of having disproportionate assets, heading the agency at this time. Even if we are to assume that Verma and Asthana have both been sent on leave to maintain status quo, you need an interim leader from outside and not within the organization," said a senior IPS officer, familiar with the developments.

Of course, Verma has been insisting that Asthana needed investigation. The latter’s name came up when the agency was probing the 8,100 crore Sterling Biotech case and its Gujarat-based promoters Chetan and Nitin Sandesara. Investigators also found that a lavish wedding for Rakesh Asthana’s daughter had been hosted at the Sandesara’s farmhouse, near Vadodara, in 2016. Two years hence, in 2018, a probe against controversial meat exporter Moin Qureshi exploded, as the key eyewitness in the case—Sathish Sana —began to bring two of the agency’s top officers down (See box for a profile of Moin Qureshi).

Then, Asthana sent a “top secret" note to the CVC, alleging that Verma had indeed taken a 2 crore bribe from Sana, Subsequently, in October, the tables were turned as Sana alleged that it was indeed Asthana who had taken a 3 crore bribe. As the CBI then booked its second-in-command, Rakesh Asthana, for criminal misconduct, the agency’s leadership collapsed like a pack of cards.

The politics

Much as the CBI is an autonomous body, functioning under the aegis of the CVC, former officials of the agency have said that investigations have, more often than not, been driven with tacit interference from the government. For instance, when the agency started investigating the Aircel Maxis case, in 2011, the united progressive alliance (UPA) government had reportedly pressured investigators to go easy on then telecom minister Dayanidhi Maran, who was a key ally of the government. Likewise, other persons familiar with the agency’s operations stated that in the ongoing probe against former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, in the IRCTC tender issuance case, the centre “wants to clearly cause a rift to keep Lalu Prasad away."

However, the above quoted former CBI officials, also added that it was for the agency chief to insulate the body from any pressure tactics. In 1997, the SC—in the Vineet Narain case judgment—had fixed a two-year term for the CBI director. While the director, during this fixed term, is essentially required to preside over cases of national importance, one of the key unspecified roles is his capacity to absorb any “pressure" from the establishment, and insulate the ostensibly autonomous organization from political intervention. “When we were investigating Dayanidhi Maran, we had to explain to the Congress and its allies why the matter was important and prosecution, necessary. Thankfully, it worked out. But that may not always be the case," said the former CBI official, quoted above.

Not every agency head, however, has managed to hold their own. In the wake of the 2G scam investigations, in 2014, then director Ranjit Sinha came directly under the SC’s scanner and was eventually recused from the case, for having abused his official position.

Today, the Congress party has alleged foul play in Verma’s removal. With the party claiming that Verma may have begun probing into the controversial Rafale deal, his precipitous removal from office, had come across as the only route for the government to adopt – allegations which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government have labelled as “baseless, false and malicious." “None of this fits – the battle has been on for a year and the government suddenly decides in a midnight move, to remove Alok Verma. If a probe into Rafale had really been initiated, the government must have been extremely worried and so they decided to remove the director, undemocratically," said a former cabinet minister in the UPA government, on condition of anonymity.

The final countdown

Alok Verma has an uphill task ahead of him, despite wielding support from former politicians Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha and senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan.

Shourie and Sinha have not minced their words in demanding a probe in the Rafale deal, citing “criminal misconduct by high functionaries"—a demand which has suddenly taken centre stage in the Verma-Asthana imbroglio. Bhushan however, from the very beginning has tacitly lent his support to Verma, including the time when Verma opposed Asthana’s appointment as special director citing integrity issues—an episode which sowed seeds of discontent in CBI’s highest office.

Legally, the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act (DSPE) makes no provision for the termination of the director of CBI. However, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s go-ahead to the CVC to conduct an inquiry against Verma will now give the K.V Chowdary-led vigilance body the time it needed to substantiate the unflattering charges against Verma—those of “non-compliance, non-cooperation and wilful obstruction."

As Verma is now suspected of having “gone rogue", there’s no support from those who elected him to office in the first place, That’s why many feel Verma’s term may just meet an abrupt closure, before its legitimate end in January 2019. But with the apex court watching every move, the next two weeks should pass by quickly.

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