New Delhi: In an unprecedented development, the consequences of which may singe the Modi government, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has booked its own special director and number-two in the organisation, Rakesh Asthana, in a bribery case. Asthana, who is named as the prime accused in an FIR that was filed on October 15, is alleged to have received kickbacks, amounting to Rs 2 crore, from a businessman, Moin Qureshi, to settle a money laundering case against him.
The FIR also mentions Samant Kumar Goel, a special director at India’s premier external intelligence body, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), as aiding the illegal deal between Asthana and Qureshi. However, the CBI has not named the 1984 batch IPS officer from the Punjab cadre as an accused in the case as yet. His role is currently being probed.
Asthana, it is alleged, received bribes through a middleman named Manoj Prasad, who was arrested by the CBI’s anti-corruption unit on October 16, a day after the FIR was filed. CBI officials told The Indian Express that the Dubai-based Prasad admitted, in a statement to the magisterial court, to have paid bribes to Asthana on behalf of Qureshi. He has also reportedly named Goel as the one facilitating the process.
The CBI is said to have submitted “telephone intercepts, WhatsApp messages, money trail and a statement” – all allegedly pointing towards Asthana’s culpability – to the magistrate.
How the case unfolded
The bribery case goes back to February 2014 when the Income Tax department raided the office of Qureshi, a meat exporter. His BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) messages showed that he was directly in touch with former CBI director A.P Singh. Consequently, Singh was forced to resign from his post-retirement sinecure as a member of the Union Public Service Commission. In February, 2017, the CBI registered the case and handed it over to a Special Investigation Team (SIT) led by Asthana. Subsequently, in August 2017, Moin Qureshi, a meat exporter, was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate under various provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. He was accused of laundering money for a number of public servants.
Asthana’s own role came into question when a Hyderabad-based businessman Sana Satish, who was being probed in the Qureshi corruption case by the CBI SIT headed by Asthana himself, gave a statement before a magistrate on October 4 that the CBI special director was trying to suppress the case against Qureshi in exchange for money.
The Indian Express reported that Satish named Asthana, Manoj Prasad and his relative, Somesh, in his statement and “gave details of how he had paid Rs 3 crore over a period of 10 months from December 2017 to stay away from the CBI case”. Satish, according to the newspaper report, also claimed that “he was harassed by CBI officers to pay more”.
“On the instructions of Manoj Prasad, Rs 25 lakh were allegedly paid on October 9 to a conduit to get relief from appearing before the SIT for questioning. After he got relief, Prasad travelled from Dubai to Delhi in the morning to collect Rs 1.75 crore on October 16, where he was apprehended by the CBI team,” the newspaper report noted.
Following his arrest, Prasad, in his statement, has reportedly said that he was paying bribes to Asthana on behalf of Qureshi. He also is said to have alleged that Goel, currently RAW’s number two and in-charge of the spy agency’s West Asia’s desk, met Qureshi quite often in Dubai and helped him get in touch with Asthana.
Infighting within the CBI
The allegations against Asthana come on the heels of massive infighting within the CBI, between the agency’s director, Alok Verma, and his number two.
Asthana has accused the CBI director of interfering in a corruption case against the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav which he is investigating.
On the other hand, Verma alleges that Asthana’s charges are “frivolous” and that he is using those as cover to divert attention from the serious accusations against him. Asthana is currently being probed in six cases including accepting bribes from the controversial Sterling Bitoech group and jailed journalist-cum-fixer Upendra Rai. The CBI, in this context, has said that Asthana was deliberately maliging Verma’s image. In July this year, the CBI had written to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) that Asthana could not have a role in inducting officers in the absence of Verma as he was under the scanner in several corruption cases. It was alleged that Asthana used his power as the number two in the organisation to bypass Verma’s authority to induct officers of questionable integrity.
Asthana not new to controversy
Asthana, a 1984-batch Gujarat cadre IPS officer, is not new to controversy. His appointment as the special director of CBI was challenged in the court by the public service NGO Common Cause. The Wire had reported earlier that Common Cause objected to his appointment as the special director as his name figured in a 2011 diary seized from Sterling Biotech – a company being probed by the CBI for money laundering – as the alleged recipient of payments worth Rs 3.8 crore. The diary subsequently became the basis for the CBI to file an FIR against the firm’s investors and other public servants. Asthana was not named in that FIR but the agency is investigating his role in the matter.
Asthana’s appointment on October 22, 2017 had happened in controversial circumstances. The selection committee comprising the central vigilance commissioner (CVC) K.V. Chowdary – whose own role was questioned in the investigations related to Sahara-Birla diaries – two vigilance commissioners and the secretaries to the home ministry and the department of personnel and training (DoPT) appointed him unanimously. However, it was then reported that Verma had objected to Asthana’s elevation in the organisation. While the CBI director is not a member of the selection committee, the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, under which the CBI operates, says that the director has to be compulsorily consulted before appointing any person above the rank of superintendent of police.
However, the Supreme Court had then thought that it should not interfere in the government functioning, giving Asthana the benefit of doubt.
Before Verma was appointed as the full-time director of CBI, Asthana fulfilled the role as the interim director. The move to appoint him as the interim director raised many eyebrows for the way it happened and also because this was the first time in a decade that the CBI was without a full-time director.
Writing for The Wire, journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta noted that Asthana, who was posted as an additional director of the CBI in April 2016, was made the interim director of the CBI for a brief period between December 3, 2016 and January 18, 2017 after Anil Sinha demitted office. He noted that merely two days before Sinha’s retirement, the second-in-command at the CBI, who should have taken over as the interim director, R.K. Dutta, was transferred to the ministry of home affairs as special secretary (internal security). Thakurta said that the transfer of Dutta was extraordinary as the post he was given “was specially upgraded from the level of joint secretary to special secretary”.
Many reports have pointed out that Asthana has always landed plush positions because of his proximity with the top brass in the Modi government.
The Wire had recently reported how Asthana was allegedly influencing a coal scam case at the CBI in which the name of Bhaskar Khulbe – a West Bengal cadre IAS officer who is now one of the most trusted aides of the prime minister Narendra Modi in the PMO – had come up. Asthana is said to have taken a stance that Khulbe should be made a witness rather than an accused in the case.
“As secretary in the PMO, he (Khulbe) 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,” The Wire report said.
The report mentions that Asthana’s soft stance against Khulbe in the case was “hardly a surprise, given his proximity to (P.K) Mishra in the PMO”. The report added that Mishra, also a Gujarat cadre officer, had backed Asthana’s appointment as the special director in the CBI and had ensured that the selection committee, headed by the CVC K.V Chowdary, appoints him unanimously despite the CBI director’s objections.