CBI vs CBI: By acting hastily, Centre has shown penchant for stealth and opacity, contempt for due process
Through its hasty act in the CBI vs CBI row, the BJP government has made one thing clear: it likes manoeuvres at midnight, metaphorically. In other words, it's addicted to govern by stealth and opacity
Editor's Note: This article, originally published on 27 October, 2018, criticising the Centre's handling of the rift between the CBI's top officers, is being republished in light of recent events: Alok Verma's resignation — just weeks ahead of his impending retirement on 31 January — after his refusal to take charge as DG Fire Service, Civil Defence and Home Guards; interim CBI director M Nageshwar Rao cancelling all transfer decisions taken by Verma, and thus reverting the positions of officials as on 8 January; the 2-1 decision of the Selection Committee comprising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge and Justice AK Sikri on Thursday evening to sack Verma as CBI chief — but nonetheless moving him to an important post — following the findings of the Central Vigilance Commission which charged Verma with corruption and dereliction of duty.
Here is the piece written on 27 October:
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday in the matter related to the government sending Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director Alok Verma on leave is interim, but it still raises all kinds of questions about the manner in which the Central Government chose to handle an extraordinary situation.
The court has given the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) a fortnight to complete its investigations into charges of corruption against Verma and file a report with it. The CVC has also been asked to file a preliminary report in 10 days, based on which, the court will decide whether or not further investigations are needed.
The CVC’s plea that 10 days were not sufficient to conclude a probe was noted and a fortnight allowed for completion, though the stipulation of a preliminary report makes that leniency a technicality. We shall have occasion to return to this point. Also rejected was the CVC’s plea that the probe should not be monitored by an outside agency. The Supreme Court appointed a retired judge of the court itself, Justice AK Patnaik, to oversee the investigation.
Though it may appear that status quo has been maintained, the court’s rulings in relation to the appointment of M Nageswara Rao as interim director changes the complexion of the current situation. The Supreme Court bench hearing the case has restrained Rao from taking any policy decisions and said that all decisions taken by him since his appointment on 23 October should remain on hold. It would appear, then, that the raft of transfers ordered by Rao immediately after taking over will not come into effect. It has further directed the CBI to submit a list of all decisions taken by Rao in a sealed cover on 12 November, the day of the next hearing. In other words, the interim director has effectively been shackled.
In the context of these rulings, some questions must be posed. Principal among them is: is the government justified in taking important decisions such as the one it did take in such haste? In other words, would the situation have worsened appreciably had the government waited for a few hours to consult the other ex-officio members of the committee authorised to appoint the CBI director before arriving at a decision?
We need to look at the timeline before arriving at some answers. In July this year, the CVC had asked Special Director Rakesh Asthana — the number two in the CBI — to attend a meeting, when Verma was unavailable. Verma later wrote to the CVC saying he had not allowed Asthana to attend meetings on his behalf. In August, Asthana wrote to the cabinet secretary alleging Verma’s corrupt involvement in several cases. Within a week, the cabinet secretary wrote to the CVC authorising a probe against the director.
On 15 October, the CBI filed a first-information report naming Asthana and deputy superintendent Devender Kumar in a case of bribery and corruption. Kumar was arrested a week later. The next day, 23 October, the CVC wrote to the government saying the charges against Verma were serious. Within hours, Verma and Asthana were sent on leave and Rao was appointed as the interim director. The more proximate timeline is even more important.
The CVC’s letter was sent, according to media reports, at 8.30 pm. At 10 pm, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval arrived at the prime minister’s residence for a meeting. At 10.30 pm, the decisions regarding the two officers were taken. At 1.45 am, the leave orders were issued.
Thus, a raft of more specific questions arise: was the evidence gathered in respect of the allegations against Verma so overwhelming that the CVC had to send a missive to the government at 8.30 pm on 23 October, 53 days after it had been asked to investigate Verma? If that is the case, what difference does four days make to the CVC in closing its investigation?
Even more important is the second question, also posed before: was the letter the CVC sent so explosive that the government had to act in about five hours and issue the leave orders?
Finally, what was the BJP president doing attending a meeting of such great 'national' importance, as the Supreme Court put it? Is that post a constitutional position?
The BJP and the government’s spokespersons have tied themselves in knots trying to justify this blatant manoeuvre. One of the more specious suggestions is that this incident once again shows how decisive and swift the Modi government is.
But, leaving these suggestions aside, and the question of the culpability or innocence of Verma and Asthana, as well as any speculation over whether Verma’s interest in the Rafale deal was responsible for rodeo shows at midnight, one thing is particularly clear: the present government likes manoeuvres at midnight, metaphorically. In other words, it is addicted to govern by stealth and opacity.
It is not the case that this BJP government has been the first to politically manipulate the CBI. Every government in recent memory has done it to such an extent that the reputation of India’s top investigating agency is, and has been for decades, in tatters. The difference is that this government has manipulated it with such brazen unconcern for public appearances. Add to this the fact that this government has manipulated, or tried to, practically every important institution — the CVC, the Enforcement Directorate, the Income-Tax Department, the Election Commission of India, et al — and the picture that emerges is one of a government committed to subverting the entire administrative structure of the nation-state and its constitutional design.
This government is neither swift nor decisive, its hallmark is absolute contempt for all notions of legality and due procedure. It thrives on the pure oxygen of intimidation, the stifling of debate and dissent, which it partly does by moving in its peculiarly inscrutable ways, so that it does not have to engage with the public on matters of utmost importance to citizens and the nation.
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