This story was first published on October 23 and is being republished on October 24 in light of CBI director Alok Verma being removed from office.
New Delhi: Alok Verma, director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, has recommended to the prime minister’s office (PMO) in writing that Rakesh Asthana, the agency’s special director and an accused in a case of alleged corruption, be placed under suspension pending an investigation in a multi-crore bribery case. He also wants Asthana repatriated to his parent Gujarat cadre as he is “unfit” to serve in the CBI. A formal communication to the PMO is significant as it creates direct accountability for the prime minister.
Verma has told Prime Minister Narendra Modi this twice – once in his Sunday early evening meeting and once in writing on Monday. Verma has referred to a “spreading contagion” that threatens to engulf both the investigative and security agencies, including the Research & Analysis Wing of the Cabinet Secretariat (R&AW).
The buck stops with Modi, as the Department of Personnel & Training (DOPT) comes directly under the PMO.
Verma will retire in January and Asthana, who is a blue-eyed boy of both Modi and Amit Shah, was their choice to succeed him as director. In fact, even before Verma was appointed, Asthana officiated as CBI director for a few months.
The CBI, in an unprecedented development, had named Asthana as accused number one in its first information report registered on October 15 on the basis of a complaint from Hyderabad-based businessman Sathish Babu Sana. Another accused in the case, Dubai-based investment banker Manoj Prasad, has already been arrested.
On Monday, the CBI arrested its own deputy SP, Devender Kumar, who has been accused of taking Rs 3 crore in bribes from Sana.
In the eyes of the opposition, the rift in the CBI has exposed the ugly underbelly of corruption and made a mockery of Modi’s claims of good governance. It has also raised a huge question mark over the high-profile cases being investigated by Asthana, including Vijay Mallya (The Wire had reported on an attempt to weaken the case) and Agusta Westland.
Sources say that Verma has been trying to resist interference from extra-constitutional authorities in the functioning of the CBI while Asthana has been happy to go along with what senior officials describe as the “Gujarat model”. This is the essence of the current crisis. Even the PMO is not a neutral umpire but an active player in this. The top official in the PMO is backing Asthana, while others are lukewarm about him.
The CBI director had also been resisting attempts by the ruling party leadership to arbitrarily use the agency’s powers to raid opposition leaders as a tool of intimidation, sources say. A prominent opposition leader was ordered to be raided after the CBI had already filed a chargesheet in a case. Verma refused, citing the fact that the stage for raiding to collect evidence was over and no fresh material was to be found.
Similarly, Verma resisted raids on or the arrest of at least three opposition chief ministers. In one case, a principal secretary was arrested and the chief minister raided. The nephew of another chief minister is being investigated for assets disproportionate to declared income.
The brother of a leading woman opposition leader has also been also targeted by the CBI from time to time and kept in custody for two days just when she had to decide to join a crucial alliance.
In another instance, Asthana reportedly sought to arrest a woman opposition leader in her 70s and her son in a corruption case. Verma argued that the alleged crime was financial and it would require the establishment of a money trail, not necessarily physical custody. Sources say it is very clear that the internal tussle within the CBI has to do with the style of politics which some describe as imported from Gujarat.
As has now become clear, this is not just a fight in the CBI, but also involves the Enforcement Directorate and R&AW.