The power struggle between Verma and Asthana came into public view when Asthana wrote a letter to the cabinet secretary and the CVC claiming he was being framed by director Verma
HARISH PUPPALA & RAKESH SHARMA
There was a strange incident in October of 2018. The CBI, or Central Bureau of Investigation, arrested one of its investigating officers and conducted searches at its own headquarters after registering a case against its second top official, Rakesh Asthana. Deputy Superintendent of Police Devender Kumar was charged with falsifying the statement of a Hyderabad-based businessman in order to implicate CBI director Alok Verma. We will try and dig deeper into this feud on this episode of Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki, with me Rakesh Sharma, right here on Moneycontrol.
The bureau said in a statement, “It was found that Devender Kumar had fabricated the statement...to corroborate the baseless allegations made by Rakesh Asthana against Alok Verma to the Chief Vigilance Commission. The role of other officers of the SIT supervising the Moin Qureshi case is also being probed.” A senior central government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Livemint, “The usual course of action when a money trail is established is that the ED takes over the probe. In this case too, ED is likely to probe the money trail against Rakesh Asthana, more so because it is unprecedented for the second-in-command of the CBI to be under the scanner.”
The power struggle between Verma and Asthana came into public view when Asthana wrote a letter to the cabinet secretary and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) claiming he was being framed by director Verma. He cited 10 cases of alleged corruption and irregularities against the CBI director. One of them pertained to the case that involved Kumar’s arrest. Asthana claimed that Sathish Sana, a key witness, paid Rs 2 crore to Verma to get relief in the Qureshi case. The CBI claimed that the allegations were “false and malicious”.
Hold on, there are more twists. On October 15, 2018, the CBI filed an FIR against Asthana after a complaint by Sana claiming Asthana had received a ₹3 crore bribe from him - criminal conspiracy and corruption.
Another official told Livemint, “It’s no secret that Asthana enjoys external support because of which he is able to periodically challenge the director. This is doing nothing but destroying the reputation of CBI.”
There had been tension between Asthana and Verma earlier as well - the CBI sent a letter to the CVC stating that Asthana had not been given any powers to represent director Verma in the latter’s absence.
Asthana was appointed CBI’s special director in October 2017, and led several cases like the AgustaWestland scam, coal scam and the investigation against Vijay Mallya. He headed an SIT to probe the 2002 Godhra Sabarmati Express burning case and had given Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, a clean chit in the communal violence that flared up. Alok Verma was appointed earlier that year, in January 2017, and the committee that appointed him included Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress leader in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, and then Chief Justice of India JS Khehar. Verma has served as the Director General for Tihar prisons, police chief of Mizoram etc.
Big egos, and big fallouts
One India Today report claimed that an insider familiar with the events in the CBI said, “The rivalry began the day, Asthana’s appointment as special director was cleared by the government.” A Rediff report claimed that when Verma took charge, Asthana began flexing his muscles and took decisions without keeping the director in the loop. You can guess what consequences such actions tend to have.
When Rakesh Asthana’s appointment as special director came up for approval, Alok Verma opposed the move claiming that Asthana’s connection with the Sterling Biotech bribery case tainted him. According to Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan, Asthana was not fit for the post of special director because his name figured in the diary of Sterling Biotech, which was being investigated by the CBI. That’s when a query by the Central Vigilance Commission to the bureau regarding Asthana received a response clarifying that Rakesh Asthana did not have the mandate to represent agency director Alok Verma.
Now, back to the bribery charges. As mentioned, Asthana claimed Sathish Sana paid Alok Verma a bribe of 2 crores in connection with the case of meat-exporter Moin Qureshi who was being investigated for tax evasion. Asthana also said when he and his team wanted to arrest Sana in February, Verma called him and told him not to do so. He also accused Alok Verma of taking him off probes into the IRCTC case against Lalu Prasad Yadav and the INX Media case involving former finance minister P Chidambaram.
Sana, on the other hand, claimed he paid Asthana a bribe of 3 crores through a Dubai-based middleman named Manoj Prasad. He claims Manoj showed him a WhatsApp conversation with Asthana and he saw Asthana's profile picture with the number which reassured him that Manoj's connection to Asthana was legitimate. Sana claimed Manoj also said Asthana had stayed at his home in London the previous year, and Manoj’s brother Somesh had also named a senior RAW officer Samant Kumar Goel. The FIR against Asthana named Goel as part of the extortion gang.
And then there was politics
The Asthana-Verma tussle turned political after Congress party president Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “blue-eyed boy has been caught taking bribes. Under this prime minister, the CBI is a weapon of political vendetta.”
On October 24 2018, the central government divested both, Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana, of their powers just hours after Verma directed his deputy to go on leave. The government stepped in after their feud threatened to “sully the image of India’s premier investigative agency” that is probing a series of high-profile corruption cases. The appointments committee of the cabinet said that one Nageswara Rao, who was serving as a joint director of the CBI, had been appointed as interim director of the agency.
Here’s how it played out:
According to media reports, at 9.30pm on Tuesday 23 October 2018, Alok Verma signed orders to send Rakesh Asthana on leave. This was reportedly done a day after Verma had approached the PMO seeking Asthana’s suspension. Two hours later, the PMO, allegedly at the behest of the CVC, summoned top officials of the department of personnel and training and issued immediate orders to send Verma also on leave. By 1am on Wednesday, government officials reached North Block to execute the orders, after which Rao took charge of CBI, along with the case loads of both Verma and Asthana. Media reports claimed that orders were issued on Wednesday to transfer 13 officers including Ajay Bassi, the investigating officer in the Asthana bribery case. Bassi was transferred to Port Blair while SS Gurm, an additional superintendent of police, was transferred to Jabalpur and Manish Kumar Sinha, a deputy inspector general, was transferred to Nagpur.
Alok Verma challenged his forced leave order in the Supreme Court. He claimed the centre’s move was “patently illegal” because it was in violation of the provisions under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946, which secure a two-year term for the CBI director. His petition stated, “The CBI ought to be insulated from the government, the present actions give serious credence to the requirement that the CBI be given independence from the DoT which seriously hinders the independent functioning of the institution.” Verma further claimed that the high powered committee, comprising the Prime Minister, the leader of opposition and chief justice of India, was not consulted by the centre before appointing Nageswara Rao as the new director.
The government claimed it had exercised its powers under Section 4(2) of the same act to divest the director and the deputy director of their powers. It also said the CVC had observed that the Director CBI had been “non-cooperative with the Commission, non-compliant with the requirements/ directions of the Commission and has created wilful obstructions in the functioning of the Commission which is a constitutional body.”
Finance minister Arun Jaitley told the media, “This is an unfortunate episode. The CVC’s powers are prevalent in this matter with prevailing powers of superintendence it is concerned to prevention of corruption act cases, the power of investigation is with the CVC...the CVC suggested that these accusations can’t be examined by anyone under their supervision. So, to maintain the integrity of CBI, an SIT not functioning under either of these two officers will investigate the case.”
As per a follow-up report in one news outlet, a former CBI official claimed that though Verma had a fixed tenure of two years, the government’s decision to send him on leave was not illegal. He explained, “This is not illegal since it does not curtail the director’s term. Technically he has been sent on leave and not sacked. This was decided on by the chief vigilance commissioner and this is much needed because two officers can’t go on like this.”
Importantly, according to Livemint, the fight between Asthana and Verma puts at risk the bureau’s probe into why fraud-accused Vijay Mallya was allowed to leave the country, as well as the matter of his extradition from the UK. It also compromised the probes into the ₹14,356 crore PNB fraud case and the AgustaWestland chopper scam.
Former politicians Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha as well as lawyer Prashant Bhushan came out in support of Verma. Shourie and Sinha, who have long been critics of the current government, demanded a probe in the Rafale deal, citing “criminal misconduct by high functionaries.” Meanwhile, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi permitted the CVC to conduct an inquiry against Verma on charges of “non-compliance, non-cooperation and wilful obstruction.”
The cases on Alok Verma's table before he was removed
At the time when Verma was shunted out, he was supervising seven cases, according to a report by The Indian Expres. Let’s take a look at the cases that were left unfinished, as listed by The Indian Express:
Rafale deal case: The high-profile Rafale deal case has become a talking point and Congress and its president Rahul Gandhi have been trying to corner the central government over the issue. CBI is probing a complaint against alleged irregularities in the Rafale fighter deal with France. CBI was going ahead with the verification process of the complaint. Former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and noted lawyer Prashant Bhushan had filed a 132-page complaint and submitted to Verma.
Medical Council of India (MCI) bribery case: Another controversial and much-publicised case which was being monitored by Verma himself. The CBI was looking into the alleged involvement of highly-placed individuals in the case which also implicated retired High Court judge I M Quddusi. The charge sheet has been filed and was awaiting Verma’s signature, as per The Indian Express report.
The case of Justice S N Shukla of Allahabad High Court: Another case involving Allahabad High Court Justice S N Shukla was lying on Verma’s table. Shukla was sent on leave over allegations of corruption in medical admissions. The CBI has prepared preliminary enquiry (PE).
Verma was supervising a case in which BJP MP Subramanian Swamy wrote letters to the CBI, complaining against Finance and Revenue Secretary Hasmukh Adhia.
A key case involving IAS officer Bhaskar Khulbe, Secretary to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is being investigated by the CBI in a case of allocation of coal mines.
The other case is Sandesara and the Sterling Biotech matter which was set to culminate. In this case, Asthana’s role was being probed by CBI.
In the first week of October, a Delhi-based middleman was raided. CBI during its probe found that an alleged payoff list and Rs 3 crore in cash. The CBI ascertained that the person had a pivotal role in bribing politicians and officials for “senior Public Sector Unit appointments”."
Over to the court
In late November, the Supreme Court said it would consider whether the government had the power to divest the CBI director of his duties under whatever circumstances, or whether the selection committee headed by the Prime Minister should have been approached before moving against Verma. In December, Attorney general KK Venugopal told a bench headed by chief justice Ranjan Gogoi, “Dispute between CBI director and special director was pulling down integrity and respect of the premier institution. Two top officers, Alok Kumar Verma and Rakesh Asthana, were fighting against each other and went public, which exposed CBI to ridicule...If the government had not (intervened), only God knows where and how this fight between the two top officers would have ended.”
In January, in a victory for Verma, the apex court reinstated him to his earlier position. However, the SC bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices S K Kaul and KM Joseph said they restrained Verma from taking any major policy decision until the high-powered committee considers his case. The panel - which consists of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of India - was being given one week's notice to consider the case.
This decision also took on a political hue. The Congress party said Alok Verma was removed without being given a chance to present his case, which showed that PM Modi was too afraid of an investigation - a reference to its demand of a probe into the Rafale deal. Verma was transferred as Director General of Fire Services, Civil Defence and Home Guards, an offer which he refused and subsequently resigned from the Indian Police Services (IPS) instead. The BJP responded in typical fashion, stating, “Sore loser Congress is licking its wounds after failing to subvert the CBI by joining internal personal battles. The only investigation pending is of 'The Family' that received bribes from 'Mama Christian Michel' in multiple defence deals. Lies of Rahul Gandhi completely exposed.”
Another twist in the tale
PTI reported that the Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear next week the plea challenging the appointment of M Nageswara Rao as the interim Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) chief, PTI has reported. The petition, filed by NGO Common Cause is seeking to quash the January 10 order of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet that named Rao as the acting CBI chief for a second time.
Rao was first made the interim chief of CBI after the then Director Alok Verma was divested of his powers and sent on forced leave in October last year. The NGO’s plea also seeks that the procedure laid down in Section 4A of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946, amended by the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 should be followed for the appointment of the CBI director.
After the removal of former CBI chief Alok Verma by the committee headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Rao was named as the interim chief of the agency for the second time. Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge termed the appointment of Rao as interim chief as ‘illegal’ and in a letter to the PM Modi urged that a meeting of the selection committee should be called immediately to choose a new CBI Director ‘without further delay’. Kharge had voted against the removal of Verma as the CBI chief and has since asked that the findings of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and Justice A K Patnaik’s report on Verma should be available on public domain so that the people can draw their own conclusions in the matter.What happens next on this episode of Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki - CBI Edition is the stuff of next week.