The immediate adverse effect of the bitter fight for supremacy between the two topmost officers of India’s so-called premier anti-corruption investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), would be on the future selection process of the next organisational chief.
Even as a showdown between CBI director Alok Verma and special director Rakesh Asthana was building up for the past few months, the Narendra Modi government first chose to ignore it, and when it did react—by which time the growing feud was out in the open—it took decisions, which, while appearing prima facie fair, were loaded against the former.
Two former CBI directors the South Asian Monitor spoke to—both preferred not to be identified—were unanimous in their observations about the agency’s future: not only has morale hit rock bottom and its ability to conduct fair investigations into anti-corruption cases has now become questionable, but more importantly, selecting the next chief has become problematic to say the least.
The selection process involved in picking the CBI director has evolved over time, especially in the light of past allegations of “partisan preferences” of the government of the day. The process now in place involves drawing up a panel of names of the best and senior-most three to four IPS officers which is presented to the government by the department of personnel and training that comes directly under the prime minister. The file is then moved before a bipartisan panel comprising the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, the chief vigilance commissioner and the Supreme Court chief justice for them to pick the best.
Leader of opposition, Congress parliamentarian Mallikarjun Khadge, will certainly make the appointment of the next CBI chief a “political issue” which his party will make use of before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The Congress has already linked Verma’s “virtual ouster” to the controversial Rafale aircraft deal which he was about pursue for investigations. “There is substance in the Congress’ allegation,” the former CBI chief said.
Now, with both Verma and Asthana sent on leave and the agency left to the mercy of being headed by a relatively inexperienced joint director, M Nageshwar Rao, who isn’t quite as pristine pure, the government will soon have to address the issue of appointing a permanent director. Nageshwar Rao, sources said, was unofficially performing the tasks of an additional director. Verma was due to retire in January 2019 but if his “enforced leave” gets prolonged, he may not get the opportunity to return before demitting office three months from now.
A former CBI director who retired in the mid-2000s views the fiasco within the agency as “politically engineered” to “pave the way for Asthana taking over the mantle of leadership because he has had a long and dubious association with Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah”. It is no secret that Asthana, who is from the Gujarat cadre, is Modi’s blue-eyed boy. There have been news reports recently that while posted in Gujarat, Asthana had diverted Rs 20 crore from the police welfare fund to the BJP’s coffers.
“This is unprecedented in the history of the CBI,” the former chief said, adding that “the situation was definitely allowed to be precipitated to create conditions for pushing out Verma by a sleight of hand and then make the way for Asthana to take over”. In this context, he said that the government had other means to end the feud between Verma and Asthana. “One or the other of the two could have been transferred. But to send the director packing on leave makes it amply clear that Asthana as No. 2 in the hierarchy had the backing of the PMO under Modi,” the former chief said.
That the Modi regime sought to push Asthana’s case is clear from the fact that for the past two years or so, the CBI has had only one special director whereas there is provision for having two. While agreeing that “eligible and competent candidates” are often not found, other government sources said that the Central Vigilance Commission, which initiates moves to fill up vacancies at the top, took little or no steps for the CBI to have a second special director. Indeed, Asthana’s batchmate, Yogesh Chandra Modi, was shifted out of the CBI to head the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in October last year.
Speaking to the South Asian Monitor, noted lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan, who has for years fought for accountability of government agencies, especially the CBI, said: “The target was to remove Verma who was about to begin investigations into the Rafale deal. Asthana was alleged to be involved in all kinds of corruption.” Bhushan, however, said that he hoped “order will soon be restored so that the next CBI chief’s appointment does not take too long”.
The second CBI chief the South Asian Monitor spoke to said that the situation now was “ridiculous” with the agency reduced to the “bazar level”. This former director, who retired in the early years of the last decade, said that “there is no denying that the ugly war in the highest echelons of the agency is the result of individual pettiness which has brought the organisation to disrepute and the institution has been damned beyond repair. What is more worrisome is that people will now begin to cast aspersions on the IPS”.
But this was not the first occasion of an ugly turn of events in the CBI. Recalling how a former special director M L Sharma was “denied directorship” during the tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the former CBI chief revealed that “another claimant for the top job, Ashwami Kumar, pulled political strings”, including the recommendation of a member of the Gandhi family, to “push Sharma out of the race”. According to this CBI ex-director, “Sharma’s orders were rescinded overnight and Kumar was made the chief”. Kumar could make it because he had served as head of the Special Protection Group (SPG) which oversaw the security of the Gandhis.