Alok Verma vs Rakesh Asthana: CBI battle has just begun but clean-up op at agencies needed before it's too late

New Delhi: The midnight coup at the headquarters of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is not a breather for the government, which was under fire over the bickering between two of the agency's top officers — Director ALok Kumar Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana. It also cannot sit comfortably by just sending the two on forced leave. In fact, this is going to be fraught with more skeletons tumbling out the closet of premier investigating agencies looking into big-ticket corruption cases.

Verma has moved the Supreme Court, and in a veiled attack on the government, he has claimed that the midnight sweep at the CBI occurred when he refused to bow down to political pressure. His deputy, on the other hand, is fighting another battle in the Delhi High Court, seeking to have quashed the FIR the CBI lodged against him on Verma's direction in an alleged bribery case involving meat exporter Moin Qureshi.

The mess in the CBI and the bitter fight has a shadowy past that led to the creation of two camps, each calling the other "corrupt". Sources close to the Verma camp suggest that decision-makers were rattled by his position on the Rafale fighter jet deal, after Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan filed a complaint against the agreement.

Moreover, sources claimed Verma was not comfortable with Asthana handling sensitive cases despite facing corruption charges. This is where the issue turns murkier and another investigating agency, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), enters. When Asthana promoted to the CBI special director's post last year, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) was informed about a diary containing his name recovered from the Sandesara Group, which is being investigated by the Income Tax Department, CBI and ED.

 Alok Verma vs Rakesh Asthana: CBI battle has just begun but clean-up op at agencies needed before its too late

Representational image. AFP

Firstpost has reviewed the purported note in the diary sent to the CVC. It shows three entries, which appear to be account numbers, against a certain "Asthana Sir". The authenticity of the diary entries could not be independently verified. Nevertheless, the CVC asked the CBI to investigate the allegation and submit a report.

However, the CBI neither investigated the case, nor did the ED reply to a letter from the vigilance watchdog on queries related to charges that the Sandesara Group had paid Asthana off. But sources said the ED had insisted it needed more time to get to the bottom of alleged rot.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Verma and Asthana reached a tipping point. Asthana began to write to higher-ups, including the CVC and Cabinet Secretary, alleging that Verma was prejudiced and biased against him. He also went a step further and alleged that his boss was trying to implicate him in certain cases.

Then came the Moin Qureshi case. In September, the CBI said Asthana's integrity was doubtful, and that the agency has unearthed evidence against him in at least half a dozen cases. The two officers wrote to the CVC, trading charges against each other in the same case. While the CBI booked Asthana in the case on 15 October for allegedly taking a bribe to scuttle the investigation in the Moin Qureshi case, he had written to the Cabinet Secretary on 24 August, alleging that Sathish Babu Sana had paid Verma Rs 2 crore to avoid being investigated in the case further.

On a CVC notice, the CBI responded on 14 September stating that Asthana's complaint should be viewed as a desperate attempt by a tainted officer to intimidate officers of various ranks in the investigating agency. Although the CVC never disclosed the name of the complainant, it was assumed as it seemed that the letters were from none other than Asthana.

"It is presumptive on the part of the CBI to state that a particular person has made the complaint against certain other specified persons," the CVC had said. "The commission has never informed the CBI either the source of the complaint or against whom the complaint was being made, but has sought certain records on the ground that certain allegations have been received regarding handling of such files."

The vigilance watchdog steps in

In September, the commission had requested the CBI director to cooperate and enable verification of certain allegations against him and to bring the matter creating the rift in the agency to the logical conclusion by submitting records for its perusal. The CVC had also informed the CBI that files may be shown and taken back after examination.

"The files/documents have not been submitted till date (23 October). No letter/request for adjournment has even been received by the commission from the CBI in this regard," CVC said.

The commission sent another reminder on 25 September that despite a lapse of 10 months, it had not received any report from the CBI. Since there was no response, another letter was shot off on 3 October to Verma, requesting him to attend a meeting with Chief Vigilance Commissioner KV Chowdary on 4 October, but Verma did not turn up. Subsequently, the CVC wrote to Verma, saying permission must be taken from the competent authority before any action is taken against Asthana.

"A letter dated 15 October was sent to the CBI director, stating the special director's (Asthana) apprehensions of bias and prejudice, and observing that for the CBI to conduct an inquiry/investigation, if any, against any officer, prior approval of the competent authority under Section 17(A) of the Prevention of Corruption Act be kept in mind," the CVC said.

The CBI, however, did not consider the CVC letter and registered a case against Asthana the same day for allegedly taking a bribe from Sathish Babu Sana through a Dubai-based middlemen. This was just the beginning of the infighting in the CBI.

A week after the FIR was filed, Sai Manohar, the joint director of the Special Investigation Team (SIT), submitted a letter to the CVC enclosing a secret note by Asthana, who had mentioned receiving information from a source in the Moi Qureshi case that Sana had paid Rs 2 crore to CBI director.

The CVC also mentioned that the letter was marked to the SIT joint director to update Asthana about the developments in the investigation on a daily basis. It also carried a handwritten note from Sana dated 1 October, in which he claimed that he had already resolved the case through a contact who had allegedly met Verma to settle the matter. The commission further said that the CBI director was not cooperating in furnishing files related to the corruption case he was allegedly involved in.

"In the meantime, an environment of hostility and factional feud has reached its peak in the CBI, leading to potential loss of reputation/credibility of the organisation. The grave allegations of corruption by senior functionaries of the CBI one against another, also widely reported in the media, has vitiated the official environment. It has also vitiated the working environment in the organisation, which has a deep and visible impact on other officers," CVC said, explaining Verma's removal in an eight-page note on Wednesday, arguing that Verma was divested of his responsibilities in view of the "extraordinary and emergent situation".

However, the shadowy game in the power corridors of the agency is not over yet. Verma has sought the Supreme Court's intervention, and in the meantime, allegations against the newly appointed interim director, M Nageswara Rao, have also started tumbling out in the public domain.

Moreover, spin doctors from both the Verma and Asthana camps are trying to outrun each other by leaking various reasons for the sudden move by the government, including the alleged attempt by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to shield a top bureaucrat and Verma's keen interest in the Rafale deal.

Firstpost had reported in August that PMO sources had refuted such allegations, saying that neither was there any interference, nor could anyone question the integrity of this officer, and that investigating agencies were free to look into this matter. On allegations that Asthana was going soft on some high-profile cases, the sources had said there was no truth to the claims, and that such a probe will be taken to a logical conclusion, though ED officials had insisted that Asthana's role needs to be investigated on account of his name figuring in the Sandesara diary.

The CVC has also observed that Verma has been non-cooperative with the commission, non-compliant with its requirements and directions, and has created "willful obstructions" in the functioning of the commission, which is a constitutional body.

The government is set to face more heat in the CBI vs CBI controversy in the coming days. It needs to investigate charges against both Asthana and Verma and must ensure that all pending corruption cases are taken to a logical conclusion in a time-bound manner. No doubt, the Opposition will mount a scathing attack on the government, but to reinstate the sanctity of the corruption cases, it needs to carry out surgical strikes on central agencies where plots were scripted to create the current crisis.

A former CBI officer, BR Lall had once written: "Even an upright official, when faced with orders from his political masters, turn helpless in an effort to uphold rules and values. He is seen to be disloyal, as if loyalty is not to the system but to the individual."

It will be Utopian to accept that the CBI is a free parrot, not caged. But the present circumstances demand that the government launch a clean-up operation at various agencies before it's too late.

Updated Date: Oct 25, 2018 09:28:06 IST