Behind Civil War in CBI, Concern Over Fate of Top PMO Official Linked to Coal Probe

As the CBI probes a coal block allocation case, conflicting views emerge on how to handle Bhaskar Khulbe, secretary in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's office.

Note: This article was originally published on October 6, 2017 and is being republished in light of Centre’s decision to remove CBI director Alok Verma from his post. 

New Delhi: The internal war within the Central Bureau of Investigation is being fuelled by officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and a corporate house, top government officials have told The Wire.

Over the past two weeks, the simmering hostility between CBI director Alok Verma and the second ranking officer in the agency, special director Rakesh Asthana, has spilled out in to the open. Letters have been written to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), and then leaked to the media. Asthana has accused Verma of not allowing him to pursue a criminal investigation against Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav. On his part, Verma has questioned Asthana’s credibility, pointing out that he is officially the subject of an investigation in six cases. Earlier, in July this year, the CBI had told the CVC that Asthana had no authority to induct officer’s in Verma’s absence.

But it is now apparent that what we are seeing is more than merely a clash of personalities or egos in the CBI. The clash between Asthana and Verma has deeper roots – and its implications will run much further than just the careers of the two men.

Also Read: As SC Upholds Controversial CBI Appointment, ‘One Rakesh Asthana’ Becomes Two

While Verma has always had a problem with Asthana and fought tooth and nail to prevent his appointment as special director, the latest spat is connected to the CBI’s ongoing investigation into the coal scam.

To charge or not to charge

The agency is in the midst of investigating the role of Bhaskar Khulbe, a West Bengal cadre IAS officer, in the allotment of coal blocks to a Bengal based company, Ramsarup Lohh Udyog Limited in the Moira-Madhujore block in the state. At the time, Khulbe was advisor, industries to the West Bengal government.

Khulbe is no garden variety bureaucrat. As secretary in the PMO, he is one of Narendra Modi’s most trusted aides. He handles all transfers and postings of Central officials, working closely with P.K. Mishra, additional principal secretary to the prime minister.

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Officials in the CBI say the investigating team has recommended that Khulbe be made an accused, just as former Union coal secretary H.C. Gupta had been in a Jharkhand coal block allocation case. Gupta was convicted in December 2017 and sentenced to a three-year prison term. “From the investigating officer to the top most official supervising the investigation, the view is unanimous. It has also been written on the file that Khulbe be made an accused,” an official in the agency said.

However, Asthana is believed to have taken the stance that Khulbe should be made a witness and not an accused. That way, a CBI official said, he won’t be prosecuted for his alleged role in the scam.

Within the agency, Asthana’s stand was hardly a surprise, given his proximity to Mishra in the PMO.

Mishra, a Gujarat cadre officer, is arguably the most powerful person in the Modi government. A few months ago, when a controversy had broken out on Asthana’s appointment as special director in the CBI and it had become clear that Alok Verma was going to object to his selection in writing, officials say Mishra had summoned the Central Vigilance Commissioner,  K.V. Chowdary, and directed him to ensure Asthana was appointed.

Asthana is believed to have taken the stance that Khulbe should be made a witness and not an accused. That way, a CBI official said, he won’t be prosecuted for his alleged role in the scam.

“Mishra also directs cabinet ministers  on various matters and is seen as a super prime minister so his directions are never ignored,” an official in the CBI said. Mishra did not respond to The Wire’s questionnaire seeking a response on allegations of his alleged interference in the Asthana appointment matter.

Sources within the CBI also allege that the fight within the agency is being stoked by a large corporate house with interests ranging from steel to telecom. “The corporate house is close to a top PMO official and is getting investigated in some matters by the CBI,” the official quoted earlier said.

The role of corporates influencing CBI probes came to the forefront recently when Rajiv Singh, the CBI joint director probing the PNB bank scam, was transferred abruptly in the middle of the probe. Agency officials say Asthana did not have a good relationship with Singh.

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The CVC, who has now been entrusted with investigating Asthana’s claims against Verma, is seen as an officer mired in controversy. His name had surfaced in the former CBI chief Ranjit Sinha’s visitors diary scandal. Chowdary, after being appointed CVC, was also spotted in the office of Nikhil Merchant, a businessman believed to be close to the prime minister.

Also Read: While the media focuses on other players, public sector firms line up to do business with Nikhil Merchant

A PIL against his appointment was filed in the Supreme Court by the NGO Common Cause, which questioned his fitness for the anti-corruption job given his earlier reluctance, as a top income-tax official, to investigate the contents of incriminating documents recovered by his department from the corporate offices of the Birla and Sahara group.