#CBIvsCBI: It’s clear who Modi is backing in the Verma-Asthana feud

It’s not just a personal war but a deliberate attempt to subvert corruption cases, protect officers, and safeguard the interests of the corrupt and powerful.

WrittenBy:Vrinda Gopinath
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The Central Bureau of Investigation has been infamously called a “caged parrot”. But the explosive details of the murky goings-on in the now disreputable agency, its mercenary investigating top officers, and, most significantly, the clash between the CBI chief Alok Verma and his second-in-command—the now disgraced Rakesh Asthana—has not just plucked out all its feathers but also chopped its wings, leaving it maimed and paralysed for a time to come.

Let’s take a look at the events at they road-rolled in the last 24 hours:

In the early hours of October 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet Appointments Committee forthwith appointed joint director M Nageshwar Rao, IPS officer, as interim CBI chief while illegitimately removing the present head, Alok Verma, asking him to go on leave. The new chief’s appointment is not just illegal but a crooked way of subverting a well-defined selection process for CBI chief—a three-bench independent collegium comprising the prime minister, leader of the opposition and the chief justice of the Supreme Court is solely mandated for the task of appointment so as to ensure there is no favouritism. The chief has a fixed tenure of two years too.

Verma, who had another two months to retire, was ousted by the Modi government by illicitly ignoring this order—that too not by sacking him, but by asking Verma to go on leave. Not surprisingly, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, a leading crusader against corruption in government and public service, has challenged Modi’s order in the Supreme Court.  

Meanwhile, Modi asked Rakesh Asthana, CBI’s Number 2 in the agency, to go on leave as well. Asthana is under a cloud with a string of corruption cases being investigated by the agency itself, most crucially the ₹3.5 crore bribe by Sterling Biotech whose founders, the Sandesara brothers, fled the country after fleecing public banks of around ₹5,300 crore.

Verma had given the go-ahead for investigation and it was the major reason for the big fight in the agency. But it was another ₹5 crore bribe allegedly paid to Asthana to help settle the investigation against meat exporter Moin Qureshi, when Asthana was booked by the CBI two days ago.

The Modi government justified the move of getting both officers to go on leave by saying it was done to ensure fairness and to maintain the institutional integrity of the agency. So, is Modi being fair and square here? The answer is an emphatic no.

Take the events that followed:

First, Modi gets Verma to go on leave and immediately appoints Rao without the approval of the independent collegium. Two, a slew of transfers and postings almost immediately exposes Modi’s nefarious design.

AK Bassi, the officer in the CBI who was leading the six corruption cases against Asthana, was transferred “with immediate effect” to Port Blair. Other officers who were tasked by former chief Verma to probe Asthana were also transferred. Manish Kumar Sinha has been posted to Nagpur, officer SS Gurm has been transferred to Jabalpur. Crucially, senior officer and Number 3 in the agency, AK Sharma—the once-powerful head of the anti-corruption department and joint director of policy, once a close aide of Modi also from the Gujarat cadre, and a fierce rival of Asthana— has been left with policy only. Worse, officer A Sai Manohar—a close aide of Asthana and who was previously removed by CBI chief Verma from the Special Investigating Team looking into Asthana’s cases—has been brought back to take Sharma’s place as head of the anti-corruption department.

The appointment of Tarun Gauba, DIG, who has been brought from Chandigarh to Delhi to investigate Asthana, has raised eyebrows. Gouba is a 2001 IPS officer of the UP cadre. He is not just Asthana’s junior, he is also known to be close to the Modi government. Gauba investigated the Dera Sacha Sauda case but more importantly, he headed the investigations into the multi-crore Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh where 40 people died under mysterious circumstances. While Gauba charge-sheeted 86 people, he gave a clean chit to Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

Next, in a surprise move later in the afternoon of October 24, Verma moved the Supreme Court to challenge his “dismissal” and squarely pinned the blame on the Centre (Modi) and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) who, as Verma petitioned, “both took the overnight decision to divest me of CBI’s Director’s role”. In his oral submission to the court, Verma also mentioned that he came to know of his removal only at 6 am, and pleaded that the sudden and unexpected turn of events will upset the many investigations underway in several sensitive corruption cases.  

He said, “I can furnish details of many cases which have led to the present circumstances. They are extremely sensitive. There is need for an independent CBI. The present circumstances occurred when certain investigations into high functionaries do not take the direction that may be desirable to the government.”

This could not be a more deadly comment on the Modi government.

The events of Verma’s ouster and the appointment of Rao as interim CBI chief brings into focus not just the accusations and counter-accusations of corruption and political interference in crucial cases but also brings to light the dubious role of the office of the CVC and Modi’s handpicked head, KV Chowdhury.  The CVC’s role is crucial—to monitor the CBI—and no government appointments, including in the CBI, can be made without its approval.

Verma has already pointed fingers at Chowdhury for his ouster, but Chowdhury’s role in fomenting the trouble between him and Asthana is legion. Before listing out Chowdury’s suspect role in the fracas, it is important to note that Chowdhury had refused to take action against Rao on Verma’s recommendation. A few months ago, Verma had asked for an enquiry into Rao’s involvement in what is now called the Hindustan Teleprinters scam in Chennai when Rao had been Joint Director, Chennai Zone. Chowdhury reportedly refused to take action. To ensure that Rao does not get away, Verma swiftly ordered the transfer of all corruption investigations in Chennai out of the CBI to the Banking and Securities Fraud Cell in Bengaluru. The investigations are still underway.

In the case of the Verma-Asthana feud, Chowdhury refused to accept the corruption cases against Asthana at the time of his appointment in the CBI last year. Significantly, he also took an unjustifiable stand when, two months ago, Chowdhury asked for all the investigation papers in the Lalu Yadav/IRCTC scam, where Asthana accused Verma of deliberately stalling and interfering in the investigation to protect Yadav. The CBI had said the allegations were frivolous and the Supreme Court too had dismissed the matter.

This evening, however, the Modi government justified Verma’s ouster in a long statement claiming that Verma was not cooperating with the CVC by producing documents pertaining to the case and that the CVC had observed that Verma has been “non-cooperative, non-compliant and created willful obstructions in the functioning of the CVC.”

All these events of the day show which side the Modi government is favouring in the Verma-Asthana feud—which is not just a personal war but a deliberate attempt at subverting corruption cases, protecting the government’s own favourite and pliant officers, and safeguarding the interests of the corrupt and powerful fugitives, brokers and wheeler-dealers.  

The capital is thick with speculation that Verma was removed as he wanted to act on the complaint filed by former BJP leaders and Modi baiters Arun Shourie, Yashwant Sinha and Prashant Bhushan on the Rafale deal. At the heart of the matter is also the Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi cases. No one has forgotten it was the CBI which had diluted the lookout notice for Mallya at airports to a mere “inform to the police”, which allowed him to flee the country.


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