Alok Verma's reinstatement as CBI chief leaves Centre embarrassed, reiterates importance of picking battles

New Delhi: "Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat" - Sun Tzu

These words of the Chinese general, military strategist, writer and philosopher adequately sum up the government's midnight October coup against CBI Director Alok Verma. The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) drafted an eight-page note highlighting allegation of corruption, non-cooperation and cited several notices that went unanswered before it sent Verma into hibernation on 23 October.

 Alok Vermas reinstatement as CBI chief leaves Centre embarrassed, reiterates importance of picking battles

File photo of CBI director Alok Verma. Getty Images

The move was seen as a show of strength by a decisive government, which finally stepped in to defuse the bitter fight with Special Director Rakesh Asthana (Verma's deputy) and show them their place. Verma and Asthana were at loggerheads: the latter was booked by the chief investigative agency in an alleged bribery case for accepting a bribe to "settle" a case of meat exporter Moin Qureshi, who is facing multiple cases of money laundering and corruption.

Asthana accused Verma of interfering in the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation corruption case involving family members of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad and filed a complaint against him. The CBI responded by releasing a statement denying Asthana's charges, asserted that Asthana was being probed in a half dozen cases and accused him of trying to intimidate investigators. The fight between the CBI director and his deputy came to light after Verma objected to the CVC calling Asthana as the CBI representative for a meeting when Verma was on a trip abroad. The tiff has been on for months, with Verma allegedly attempting to block Asthana's elevation as the special director on the grounds that he was being investigated.

While BJP leaders defended the government's decision, saying it takes tremendous courage to act against corruption, a section within the government remained nervous. The government's first big mistake was to let the fight escalate and allowing the two factions within the CBI — each accusing the other of corruption — to mar the administration's image.

The second blunder was to rope in the CVC to rein in Verma, who could have been asked by Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to behave like a CBI director and not a sulking babu. There was a serious misinterpretation of CVC roles and functions vis-à-vis Vineet Narain case. The vigilance watchdog exercises superintendence over the functioning of the Delhi Special Police Establishment (CBI) insofar as it relates to the investigation of offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act. And it can give directions to the CBI for superintendence insofar as it relates to the investigation of offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Before taking steps against Verma, the government should have gone to the selection panel headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with leader of Opposition, Chief Justice of India before the midnight coup. It did not do that. The process, which could have been completed without any hitch will now be set in motion, but only after losing face in the Supreme Court and termed "despotic" by the Opposition Congress.

The government argument that the action was due to extraordinary and emergent situation overwhelmingly failed to assure the apex court, which set aside the CVC and DoPT order. Tuesday's defeat is not a minor hiccup, but a huge embarrassment for the government, which also failed to consider two salient points before acting: Was the CVC legally empowered to divest the CBI chief of his powers without a decision taken by the selection panel that appoints him? Should the probe have been ordered into the alleged corruption case after a meeting was convened by the panel?

The Supreme Court directive to reinstate Verma — albeit without any power to take policy decisions — clearly indicates that these two points were not even considered by the higher-ups in government despite the fact that they knew there was a possibility of a crushing defeat on the eve of 2019 general elections.

This is undoubtedly a setback for the government and an argument like ‘balanced view’ is nothing more than a face-saving exercise. Verma is set to retire in the first week of next month and the selection panel needs to decide his fate. The murmurs within the CBI is that Verma, after being reinstated, may resign since the Supreme Court decision is merely a moral victory for him.

Verma went to the Supreme Court seeking enforcement of his rights, but the directive is more academic and cannot be seen as such.  The government will still call the shots, but this whole saga is an important reminder to decision-makers: Know which battles to pick, and more importantly, when to pick them.

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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2019 20:09:10 IST