New Delhi: The government’s 2 am decision to oust director Alok Verma as the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation came hot on the heels of not just his request for sanction to arrest an official considered close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi but also his interest in the controversial Rafale deal.
Last week, the CBI filed an FIR charging Rakesh Asthana – special director in the CBI and a Gujarat cadre police officer propelled to prominence in the agency by the PMO – with bribery and corruption. Since official sanction from the government is needed to arrest any officer above the rank of joint secretary, Verma had placed a request but permission was not granted.
The Wire has also learned that Verma – who was selected by a high-powered collegium including the Chief of Justice of India for a protected tenure “not less than two years” that ends in January 2019 – had been readying himself to initiate a preliminary enquiry (PE) in to the Modi government’s controversial decision to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft from Dassault Aviation, with a major part of the offset contracts going to an Anil Ambani-led company.
The decision to purchase 36 aircraft in a flyaway condition – in lieu of the originally cleared proposal of buying 18 flyaway fighter jets and manufacturing 108 in India – was taken personally by Modi and announced by him in Paris on April 10, 2015 allegedly without any of the necessary statutory clearances and is now the subject of a criminal complaint to the CBI filed by former BJP ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and lawyer Prashant Bhushan, and also a PIL in the Supreme Court.
The trio of Sinha, Shourie and Bhushan had submitted a voluminous complaint to the CBI. Verma not only received the complaint but sought a confirmation from the defence ministry about the authenticity of the official documents they had referred to.
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Earlier this year, in fact, Aam Aadmi Party Rajya Sabha MP from Delhi Sanjay Singh had written to the CBI and CVC asking that the Rafale matter be investigated, and that correspondence is also part of the official record.
While the Supreme Court has asked the government to inform it of the procedures it has followed in the entire aircraft deal – a significant move since the Prevention of Corruption Act criminalises certain official decisions taken in disregard to procedure – Verma too had begun the process of looking at some of the Rafale deal documents and reportedly wanted the defence ministry to authenticate them, authoritative sources have told The Wire.
Verma’s interest in the Rafale deal was likely seen by the prime minister and his closest aide in government, national security advisor Ajit Doval, as a dangerous shot across the bow and seems to have been the key trigger for the CBI director’s removal.
The net effect of the prime minister’s action is that the upper echelons of the CBI have been virtually dismantled as all teams have been dissolved and the CBI building sealed with unknown intelligence officials carrying out raids.
Nageshwar Rao, who has replaced Verma as acting director, is the first IG-level official ever to be chief of the CBI. Verma wanted action against him too but the Modi-appointed Chief Vigilance Commissioner, K.V. Chowdhary resisted. Rao’s first decisions have been to move the officials who were investigating Asthana out of headquarters.
Notionally, the Modi government is claiming to have acted on the advice of the CVC but the move is bound to be challenged at the Supreme Court. Noted lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan confirmed to The Wire that he is moving the apex court, whose orders, he says, the Modi government has flagrantly violated.
Already, opposition politicians have accused Modi of ousting Verma to ensure the Rafale deal is not taken up for investigation.
Is there a co-relation betn Rafale deal and removal of Alok Verma? Was Alok Verma about to start investigations into Rafale, which cud become problem for Modi ji?
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) October 24, 2018
While the Modi government’s unofficial spin to the media is that the Centre has acted against both Verma and Asthana, officials familiar with the case insist there is no equivalence between the two. Verma, they say, is the CBI director with a collegium protected tenure who acted with the full backing of the law against his junior for alleged bribery and extortion.
This was never a turf war as is being made out in the media but an outgrowth of the Modi government’s attempts to politicise the functioning of the CBI. As director, Verma insisted on ensuring that extra constitutional authorities did not carry out a political vendetta against rival politicians. Special director Asthana, on the other hand, appeared eager to play out political agendas. When Verma as director resisted, Asthana sought to make this an issue in a complaint to the CVC.
Sources say Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Doval were in a huddle from early evening. The result was what is being termed as a ‘coup against the CBI. Top officials say this is the latest example of the “undeclared emergency” – an action unsupported by an law.