This article was first published on October 24, 2018. It is being republished on October 31, 2018 in the light of A.K. Bassi, the CBI officer investigating Rakesh Asthana, approaching the Supreme Court challenging his sudden transfer to Port Blair. Bassi told the court that he has “incriminating evidence” against Asthana and asked for an SIT probe.
New Delhi: The unprecedented ouster of a serving director of the Central Bureau of Investigation despite the law granting him a fixed tenure of not less than two years has already been challenged in the Supreme Court but what worries CBI officials is the fate of all the evidence the agency had gathered against one of its own top officials – including “highly incriminating” phone intercepts that reach to high levels in the government.
In the early hours of Wednesday, the government sent CBI director Alok Verma on leave – effectively sacking him. It also sent the CBI’s special director, Rakesh Asthana, against whom the agency had filed a case of bribery, on leave and placed the agency under the charge of an IG-level officer, M. Nageswar Rao.
Verma has moved the Supreme Court against his being summarily “divested” of his job and has spoken in his petition of being penalised because of investigations not going the way the government wants.
Alok Verma to SC: Need for an independent #CBI. Present circumstances occured when “certain investigation into high functionaries do not take the direction that may be desirable to the government” @the_hindu@abaruah64
— Krishnadas Rajagopal (@kdrajagopal) October 24, 2018
While Verma was in the Modi government’s cross-hairs because of his investigation into Asthana – an official who is close to the prime minister – and because he appeared to be showing interest in the Rafale deal, news of these recordings, officials say, triggered panic at the highest levels.
The recordings have established that the case against CBI special director Rakesh Asthana was not simply one of bribery and corruption, as the FIR registered last week states. Rather, the manner in which top officials in other branches of government – especially the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the PMO – also took part in what the CBI says was an “extortion racket” has serious implications for national security as well.
Were they to be made public, the details could prove to be a major embarrassment for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. What the CBI has, say officials, are phone interceptions and messages of top bureaucrats in the PMO who were allegedly interfering in key investigations pertaining to certain corporates. The bureaucrats are believed to be close to Asthana. Another top officer in the PMO is also being investigated in the Rakesh Tiwari case. This PMO official, says agency officers, had sought several favours from Tiwari including organising parties free of cost.
If the crisis in the CBI is unprecedented, so is the crisis in RAW. The CBI has named a top official of the agency, Punjab cadre IPS officer Samant Goel, in its FIR against Asthana. An official in the agency says it had intended to inform the court of the “large role” played by Goel in trying to dilute the Moin Qureshi case along with Asthana. The agency was also preparing to frame charges against Goel for running an “extortion racquet” along with Asthana.
The official also said Goel “misused” R&AW to snoop on the CBI number 3, A.K. Sharma, and was intercepting his phones. Sharma is believed to be close to another R&AW official, K. Illango. Both Goel and Illango are in the race to become the next chief of India’s external intellignce agency. The official said that besides the intercepts and snooping of Sharma, Goel also “planted stories” in the media on how Illango was unfit for the post of R&AW chief because he was accused of helping opposition politicians in Sri Lanka unite against Mahinda Rajapakse, then the president of the island nation.
Goel, said one official, is an associate of middleman Manoj Prasad, who was arrested by the CBI a few days ago in the Asthana case. Prasad is a close relative of a senior functionary of the Sahara group. The CBI’s phone intercepts reveal among other things Goel warning a suspect in the Moin Qureshi case, Somesh Prasad, from appearing before the CBI. This, says the official, amounts to ‘destruction of evidence.’
The R&AW charter, says an agency official, forbids it from interfering in domestic matters. ”This has never happened in the history of the organisation,” he said.
Asthana, says the official, had assured Goel of getting him appointed as R&AW chief through a top PMO official, Bhaskar Khulbe, whom he was investigating in the coal scam. The Wire had reported how the CBI had recommended that Khulbe be made an accused in the coal scam but Asthana had pushed for him to be made a witness instead.
CBI investigations also reveal that an advocate who was at the forefront of raising the Lalu Yadav IRCTC case in the Supreme Court against certain CBI and ED officials had close relations with Asthana and had gone for his daughter’s wedding to Ahmedabad in 2016.