Rumblings at the CBI

Is the ground beneath Modi-Shah shaking yet?

WrittenBy:Vrinda Gopinath
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Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi tempting fate? Or has it come back to bite him? Recent events show Modi and his closest confidante, BJP President Amit Shah, are beginning to lose the narrative, which they once firmly owned. This despite a disparate Opposition coalition and a cloying media. 

The most recent is the curious case in the country’s premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, where infighting at the top is loosening the firm grip officers aligned to the Modi-Shah duo had over the agency and its investigations into various criminal cases.

Yesterday, the news of Nitin Jayantilal Sandesara and his brother Chetan, owners of Vadodara-based Sterling Biotech group, the key accused in a Rs 5,300 crore bank loan fraud, having fled Dubai despite the CBI and ED filing extradition pleas hit the headlines. The extraordinary feature of this case is that only two days ago, CBI chief Alok Verma had accused former Gujarat police officer and the agency’s Special Director Rakesh Asthana in six corruption cases, with the Sterling Biotech fraud topping the list.

The unprecedented move came on the heels of Asthana’s complaint to the Central Vigilance Commission a few days before, about Verma’s interference in raids against Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav last year in the IRCTC case, which apparently delayed the raiding party for hours. Yadav was being investigated for a quid pro quo of doling out contracts for two hotels in return for a three-acre plot of land.

It provoked the CBI to issue a public statement against its own No 2 officer Asthana saying: “His (Asthana) complaint to the CVC is to intimidate the officers of the CBI who are investigating his role in at least half a dozen cases.”

As reported in the Indian Express on July 16, Verma had written to the CVC putting on record the six cases of corruption against Asthana as part of the appraisal process to the DoPT, which comes under Modi. The list begins with the Rs 5,300 crore Sandesara bank fraud where Asthana’s name appears in two entries in the Sandesara diaries of cash transactions. The diaries were found during an Income Tax raid of the group in June 2011, based on which the Enforcement Directorate filed charge sheet against the Sandesara brothers and few members of the family, and the head of Andhra Bank and Congress honcho Ahmad Patel’s son-in-law.

Other allegations include that Asthana tried to deflect tax proceedings against Sandesara family; that Asthana’s family got undue benefits like flying in the company jet and free flight tickets; and his alleged contacts with Undesirable Contact Men (UCM), most notably Upendra Rai, who is charged under the Official Secrets Act and with money laundering.

If that is not stunning, a look at Asthana’s career reveals more.

Asthana is a 1984-batch Gujarat cadre officer, who first shot into the limelight in Gujarat when he headed the Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by Modi, to look into the Sabarmati Express train burning in Godhra, which led to communal riots in 2002. His report on the investigations declared the Godhra incident was a “carefully planned” and “meticulously executed” criminal conspiracy, which suited Modi’s action-reaction theory for the murderous riots.

That the Modi-Shah duo trusts him implicitly is revealed in his career graph, as he moved from one important post to another in the state, and then moved to Delhi in 2016 when he was appointed the interim director in the CBI. It was challenged by a PIL but the Supreme Court threw it out after the Modi Government argued that Asthana’s record was impeccable and he was leading investigations in several top-profile criminal cases.

It must be said that only today the Italian courts decreed that there is no evidence of corruption in the AgustaWestland case, which Asthana was investigating here.

Then there’s Arun Kumar Sharma, a joint-director in the CBI, who was in the news last week for the dilution of the CBI lookout notice of 2016, for absconding tycoon Vijay Mallya from “detention” to merely being “informed” at airports. It was done without the approval of then CBI chief Anil Sinha.

Now, how could Sharma take such a crucial decision on his own? He is yet another handpicked officer by Modi, who brought him to Delhi a year after he became PM, in April 2015, and appointed him joint-director, bank frauds and securities, for an initial period of five years. So implicit is Modi’s trust in Sharma that he appointed him as nodal officer in 2016, for investigating cases related to demonetisation registered with the CBI; in 2017, he was made joint director (policy), the second-most important post in the agency since it directly liaises with the PM’s office. He also holds the charge of anti-corruption and is now heading the CBI’s investigation of businessmen Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi who defrauded Punjab National Bank of Rs 11,400 crores. It’s another matter that both fraudsters have fled the country even as investigations were being conducted.

AK Sharma, unlike Asthana, is not touched by any corruption scandal; in fact, in the CBI fracas, Asthana has also complained about Sharma to the CVC, who happens to lead the internal CBI investigation against Asthana.

Sharma has been known as a fierce Modi loyalist ever since he served him in his first election in Rajkot to the Gujarat Legislative Assembly, in February 2002, a week before communal riots erupted in the state. Sharma was the DCP in charge of the district, and he was later brought to Ahmedabad Range after the state elections later that year. As Sharma’s proximity and influence with the newly-elected chief minister Modi grew in leaps and bounds, he also became embroiled in several criminal cases.

Sharma first exploded on the stage when he was Joint Commissioner Crime Branch, during the investigation of the fake police encounter of Ishrat Jahan and her purported terrorist accomplices in 2004. His name had cropped up in a CD where he was allegedly present along with Modi’s principal secretary GC Murmu and other officers at the advocate general’s office, to devise a strategy to “obstruct the investigations.”  Sharma was not part of the encounter team, but the Ahmedabad police had explained the murder saying the suspected terrorists were plotting to kill Modi to avenge the 2002 communal riots.

Forensic evidence belied the police version and Amit Shah, Modi’s home minister at the time was forced to resign and sent to prison in 2010, for a few months. He was later released and asked to live outside Gujarat for the unhampered conduct of investigations. It was in 2013 when Sharma was called by the CBI to be questioned about the CD.

Meanwhile, Sharma was among the privileged few police officers who were privy to the goings-on of the bureaucracy and administration and he reported directly to the chief minister. In fact, as he rose to become Special Officer Crime Branch in Ahmedabad, he became embroiled in yet another scandal in 2013, which came to be known as Snoopgate.

It was revealed that between August to September 2009, an illegal surveillance was conducted on a 35-year-old woman architect in Ahmedabad and Bhuj at the behest of a “Saheb” later identified as Modi.

Sharma was Inspector-general (Intelligence) at the time in Ahmedabad. It’s another matter that the Gujarat police refused to lodge an FIR, and the commission of enquiry into Snoopgate folded up after the Gujarat high court quashed it.

Last week, another IPS officer YC Modi was moved from the CBI and appointed Chief of the premier National Investigation Agency (NIA) that is tasked with investigating terrorism and terror-financing cases.  YC Modi was a member of the Supreme Court appointed SIT that probed the 2002 Gujarat riots, which gave the prime minister a clean chit in the Gulbarg Society massacre, where 69 people were killed.

If all this is not enough to put the spotlight on Prime Minister Modi and his links to handpicked investigating officers who are either embroiled in corruption accusations or have botched up major corruption cases or have been rewarded with top posts, came the bombshell from former French president Francois Hollande on the Dassault-Reliance offset deal.

Just when the Modi Government believed it had seized the narrative on the Reliance-Dassault deal, dismissing outright Opposition calls for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the offset contract, the French media stumped the prime minister. French website Mediapart, while investigating a possible conflict of interest on part of Hollande, following a report in the Indian Express on August 31, that Anil Ambani’s Reliance Entertainment had partly funded (Euros 1.6 million) his partner, Julie Gayet’s firm Rouge International, to make a film, interviewed Hollande who said that Reliance was proposed by the Indian government as Dassault’s partner and that France had no say in the matter.

The stunning revelation flew in the face of the media blitzkrieg launched by Modi’s Cabinet colleagues while countering allegations of corruption and cronyism. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has stoutly denied she is even aware who Dassault’s India’s offset partner is despite three years of a publicity-driven launch and inauguration of the Dassault-Reliance deal. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has been shooting off personal blogs on social media asserting the government’s defence and denials, while remonstrating and mocking the Congress party and its president Rahul Gandhi, for their deceitful and misleading accusations.

Meanwhile, the French government has merely clarified that it is not involved in any manner in the choice of Indian offset partners in the Rafale deal, adding its role was limited to only ensuring the delivery and quality of the fighter planes.

There could be more bad news for Hollande and Modi when Mediapart persists with its investigations into the deal. As its editor, Antton Rouget told India Today in an interview: “We are only at the beginning of the affair in France. Our article will help launch the topic here to look into a number of decisions at the time.”

It seems, there are events that can spin beyond Modi’s iron control.


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