CBI vs CBI – a major loss of face for the Modi Government?
The SC judgment to reinstate CBI chief Alok Verma back after a forced 77-day leave by the Modi government casts serious aspersions on the manner in which the government has handled the CBI
In a significant judgment, the Supreme Court has reinstated CBI Chief Alok Verma, thereby overruling a surprise midnight order by the central government in October that took away his powers and sent him on compulsory leave for 77 days.
However, while the Supreme Court has reinstated Mr Verma, he is not allowed to take any major policy decisions till the CVC probe is completed. He can continue with investigations into ongoing cases and register new FIRs/PEs as part of his routine work as a director.
In the government’s official version, the decision was taken due to a turf war between Alok and CBI special director Rakesh Asthana. Both were trading corruption charges in a case that the CBI was investigating against Hyderabad-based businessman Sana Satish Babu apart from other allegations.
First, Alok sent a proposal to the PMO for Mr Asthana’s suspension. One day later, he directed Mr Asthana to go on leave, and within hours, the government intervened and divested Alok Verma of his powers to send him on forced leave pending a CVC enquiry.
In the government’s view, it was necessary to protect CBI’s integrity and image since the number 1 and 2 were fighting like ‘Kilkenny cats’. This was done based on the recommendations of the Central Vigilance Commission which was investigating charges against Verma based on Asthana’s letter on October 18.
Joint Director M. Nageshwar Rao was appointed interim head of CBI by early morning of October 24 and given the case loads of both Verma and Asthana. CBI is handing some key cases including the Rs 14,356 crore PNB fraud case, why Vijay Mallya was allowed to leave India and the AgustaWestland chopper scam.
Verma had opposed the decision in the SC, arguing that a CBI chief has protection for a two-year tenure. During this period, only the selection committee is authorized to decide on transfer of the CBI chief, so divesting him of his powers was tantamount to transfer and therefore illegal.
The Supreme Court earlier gave CVC a deadline of 2 weeks to the CVC to investigate the corruption charges before Mr Verma. CVC sent him an elaborate questionnaire, and the response by Mr Verma in turn made serious allegations against the CVC and even the PMO.
Alok has alleged that the Central Vigilance Commissioner Mr KV Chowdary was biased and both Asthana and Chowdhary may have got support from a top official at the PMO for going after him. He has responded to Asthana’s allegations, point by point, also alleging that the latter’s complaints were more an afterthought subsequent to the CBI booking its Number 2 (Asthana) in a corruption case.
One of the charges mentioned by Asthana in his letter is that Alok Verma misused his powers to protect key people in the IRCTC corruption case against Rashtriya Janta Dal leader Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav. Verma responded that he followed procedure and was concerned about political ramifications, since the case was constantly being followed up by Asthana, BJP leader and current deputy chief minister of Bihar Mr Sushil Modi and a “top official” in the PMO.
Verma also accused the CVC and DoPT of scuttling the CBI’s probe on Asthana with its decision to expel both officers. Moreover, officers investigating the case against Mr Asthana were sent on transfer to Jabalpur and Port Blair. Furthermore, he is accusing the CBI selection committee that includes CVC and DoPT of bringing in tainted IPS officers into the agency without following due procedure.
Also, the CVC’s preliminary investigations on the allegations against Mr Verma found ‘nothing substantial’ according to media reports.
The decision is viewed as a major setback for the Modi government. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley defended the government’s decision even after the Supreme Court ruling, “This action taken was perfectly bona fide as there were cross-allegations made by both the officers, and in accordance with recommendations of the CVC. The government felt that in the larger interest of fair and impartial investigation and credibility of CBI, the two officers must recuse themselves.”
The Congress has charged that Verma was sent on leave as he was about to investigate the Rafale scam. Congress President Rahul Gandhi commented, “The CBI chief was ousted at 1 am in the night because he was about to begin a probe into the Rafale deal… He (PM Narendra Modi) should have discussed with us the Rafale issue, in the people’s court. No one can save them from Rafale, as Rafale is the truth. No one can run away from the truth.”
Calling the decision a slap on the face of the Modi government, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewalla said that the PM must reinstate the lost tenure of the CBI chief or else it will be proved that he is afraid of the Rafale investigation.
With respect to the future course of action for Mr Verma, the high powered committee comprising the PM, leader of opposition Mr Malikarjun Kharge and the Chief Justice of India that selects the CBI Director has to sit and take a decision within a week.
The issue is that Mr Verma’s tenure gets completed on January 31, so it will be difficult for him to take any substantial decisions by then unless he is compensated for the 77-day forced leave.
In the run up to the General Elections, however, the current CBI vs CBI controversy casts serious aspersions on the misuse of the agency by the government and intervention into its affairs, which is deemed as non-negotiable.
This was also specified in the SC judgment which reiterates that the CBI has been “perceived to be necessarily kept away from all kinds of extraneous influences so that it can perform its role as the premier investigating and prosecuting agency without any fear and favour and in the best public interest”.
It is clear that the CBI Director’s immunity was breached by the government without following due procedure, and Mr Verma’s allegations further play into opposition charges that the government was compromising on the integrity and independence of the CBI along with other institutions like the CVC and RBI, which promises to be a major campaign issue for the opposition in the upcoming elections.