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Round I For Verma

Round I For Verma

For those familiar with Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther movie series, the developments in the CBI reported in the last few weeks may have seemed like real life imitating reel. The crucial difference though is that this is not the story of two bumbling sleuths at loggerheads with each other. Of the two, one was handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the other gained backing of two very powerful men in Opposition. The two tried to outdo each other and made the Central Bureau of Investigation a laughing stock.

The issues involved are no laughing matter though. Alok Verma was selected by a selection panel comprising the PM, the Chief Justice of India and the leader of the largest party in the Lok Sabha (Mallikarjun Kharge) by a majority of 2-1. Kharge objected to Verma’s selection as he was not the senior-most, but did not question his track record.

The Modi Government till then was running CBI with ‘interim chief’ Rakesh Asthana — a careerist IPS officer who steadily won promotions during Modi’s stint as Chief Minister of Gujarat for faithfully carrying out his wishes. Modi Government’s decision to have a CBI Director through a constitutionally mandated selection process came only because the Supreme Court ordered it, in response to a petition.

However, even after Verma assumed charge, the Modi Government made Rakesh Asthana ‘Special Director’ and put him literally in charge of all operations. Asthana started pursuing cases that the Modi Government wanted. They presumed Verma would be happy to be a rubber stamp. The grapevine has it that two powerful Congressmen who ran the show during UPA’s tenure motivated Verma. What followed was a power struggle, with Verma and Asthana trying to outwit the other.

They tried to embroil each other in cases. Verma and Asthana have each alleged the other colluded with people being investigated in cases of corruption. Businessman Satish Sana, accused in a case of money laundering told CBI investigators owing allegiance to Asthana that he paid a bribe to Verma. This is the basis of Asthana’s complaint against Verma filed before the Central Vigilance Commission. The same Sana, when interrogated by CBI sleuths ‘aligned to Verma’ said he bribed Asthana, resulting in a case against Asthana.

As Sleuth Versus Sleuth became public, the Modi Government became a spectacle despite media reluctance to cover almost anything against Asthana. Forced to act, the Modi Government circumvented rules again. It appointed a third person as ‘acting Director’ of CBI. The right course would have been to go back to selection panel and select a new chief after getting permission from it to sack the existing chief following allegations. This would have meant sacking Asthana too.

It was something the Modi Government was not prepared to do because it had already planned a career for Asthana as the next CBI director. The Modi Government’s track record, for that matter, shows it is not keen on selecting anyone on merit but only guarantees of loyalty or pliability. That the calculation misfired in Verma’s case is another story.

Though a meeting of the selection committee was due as Verma retires in January, Modi who does not believe in constitutional niceties conducted what will be recorded in history as a coup in the CBI. At 2 am on October 24, Nageswara Rao, a CBI officer of questionable record, was ‘appointed’ interim director because the Central Vigilance Commission K V Chowdary had few hours ago, in an unprecedented sitting at 8 pm, found that the charges levelled against Verma by Asthana and the cases filed against Asthana by CBI were serious and recommended that the Government should act. If the CVC that as supervisory agency of CBI does not know that the CBI chief can be removed only by the selection panel, he does not deserve to remain in the post.

The rules on the appointment and removal of a CBI chief are very clear. It can only be picked by the elite panel mentioned earlier and in case a CBI chief needs to be removed, the Government has to go back to the same panel and take its permission. To re-implement its earlier idea of running CBI without a head but look fair, the Government asked Verma, as well as its favourite Asthana, to go on leave while picking Rao to run the show. The idea was to buy time and stem the adverse publicity while getting the CBI to do the kind of work the Government wants. With the Lok Sabha elections fast approaching, this would easily mean getting CBI to file cases against political opponents and party heads who refuse to become allies of BJP or who decide to ally with the Congress.

The Government’s legal brain-cum-spin doctor Arun Jaitley explained the reasons that the decision to send both warring sleuths on leave was to bring about a semblance of decency, while it was up to the CVC to constitute a special investigation team to probe allegations levelled by both sleuths against the other. The clever-by-half explanation went that since Verma was on leave, the Government had not removed him and so there was no point for it to go back to the selection panel.

Verma challenged this in the Supreme Court, which asked the CVC to complete the probe against him in 10 days. Also, Chowdary’s probe team will be supervised by former Supreme Court judge A K Patnaik, as a one-time exceptional measure, a bench of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, S K Kaul and K M Joseph ruled on October 26. The Supreme Court also asked the Modi Government to send it a report on all decisions that its midnight appointee Nageswara Rao had made. The court also ordered interim CBI chief Rao to not take any policy decisions but only preside over day to day functioning of CBI.

SC’s direction to put Justice Patnaik to oversee CVC’s inquiry body is a clear indication how much credibility Chief Vigilance Commissioner K V Chowdary has. After signing on a dotted line when the Modi Government wanted to literally sack the CBI chief, the only decent thing that Chowdary can do now is to quit. He has no right to remain a ‘vigilance’ chief of all posts.

The SC ruling is a slap for the Modi Government. It would also unwittingly send a message to bureaucrats across the spectrum about the dangers of being too servile to a Government which can be voted out in a few months. Given the disarray the main Opposition Congress is in, this may not be easy to achieve though.

( abey.kay@gmail.com)

(Published on 29th October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 44)