Late in the summer of 1977, weeks after the curtain had fallen on the then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, one of its minor characters walked back on to the stage to deliver a strange epilogue. The slight, soft-spoken man who appeared before a special judge in New Delhi was a deputy commissioner in the agriculture ministry, charged by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for possessing assets of Rs 44,86,060.30 that he could not account for. Back then, when Double Seven cost Re 1, this was not a trivial sum — the money had bought sprawling properties in upmarket Vasant Vihar and Greater Kailash neighbourhoods of Delhi.

The case of deputy commissioner JC Verma, however, had a twist even the best scriptwriters would find unbelievable: his son would go on to become director of the CBI and star in what could be the moment the agency imploded.

Like all good melodramas, the savage feud in the CBI has its heroes and villains. For his supporters, CBI chief Alok Verma is the victim of a government determined to block an investigation into the Rafale jet deal. His critics insist the halo of martyrdom belongs to his deputy and bête-noire, Special Director Rakesh Asthana.

“A caged parrot” is how Justice AK Patnaik, now supervising the investigation into the charges Verma and Asthana have levelled at each other, had once described the CBI.

For decades, it’s been clear the parrot in the cage is but a macabre simulacrum, embalmed, stuffed with cotton wool and rigged with gear that lets it occasionally jump about and squawk.

Largely based on custodial confessions that have little value as evidence, the legitimacy of these competing narratives is hard to gauge. But the fact that almost every top official in India’s anti-corruption system faces serious graft allegations points us in the direction of the real story: of two powerful gangs of officials, locked in a power struggle.

The making of a scandal

Born in 1957, Verma grew up in a government housing enclave in Delhi’s Karol Bagh, graduating from St Xavier’s School and Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College.

He joined the Indian Police Service (IPS) in 1979 and went on to a career of no particular distinction. Bar a year as vigilance commissioner in 2011-12 and another five months as the Delhi Police’s intelligence czar in 2012, he held no positions of conceivable relevance to specialised anti-corruption investigations. His longest tenure was at the handicrafts ministry in New Delhi, where he served from 1995 to 2001.

In a three-page note opposing Verma’s appointment, Leader of the Largest Opposition Party in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge said it was imperative to pick a “candidate who outranks other candidates on the parameters of experience in the field of anti-corruption and integrity”.

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Rupak Dutta, the senior-most IPS officer then in the CBI, had spent 208 months at the agency and another 43 working under Justice Nitte Santosh Hegde, Karnataka’s lokayukta. But Justice Hegde resigned after clashing with Karnataka’s BJP government in 2011, and Dutta was tainted by association. Asthana, trusted by Narendra Modi from his Gujarat days, fit the bill — but was not senior enough.

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s term saw the CBI target figures close to now-Prime Minister Modi — most notably, Amit Shah. The Modi government needed Verma to repay the favour by pursuing two cases that emerged from the United Progressive Alliance’s years in office.

First was a CBI investigation against Delhi businessman Moin Qureshi, alleged to be close to Sonia Gandhi's confidante Ahmed Patel. The second, being investigated by boss-and-lieutenant team Karnal Singh and Rajeshwar Singh at the Enforcement Directorate (ED), involved former finance minister P Chidambaram and his son, Karti Chidambaram.

Inside weeks of Verma’s appointment, the cast of officers leading these cases was at war — and dragged their political patrons into the conflict.

The story centered around Rajeshwar Singh, the second-in-command at the ED. Having joined the organisation as a deputy superintendent, Singh rose through the ranks to a position of unprecedented power — helped along by the Supreme Court’s concern that his investigation of the allegations against Chidambaram was being sabotaged.

For an anti-corruption investigator, though, he maintained a close relationship with politicians: Congress leaders Ahmed Patel and Kapil Sibal, who was the former law minister, attended his son’s fifth birthday back in 2013.

Early in 2017, with Asthana holding the fort as acting director, the CBI’s internal vigilance unit shot down the appointments of three officers — Rajender Upadhyay, Rajeev Krishna and Meenakshi Krishna — citing concerns about their integrity. Upadhyay was considered Verma’s protege at the Delhi Police. Perhaps more important, Meenakshi Krishna, Rajeev Krishna’s wife, was Rajeshwar Singh’s sister. In spite of Verma’s efforts, Asthana succeeded in keeping them out.

“He could have backed down,” says a colleague of Asthana, “and let the appointments go forward. Perhaps his ego got in the way”.

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In August 2017, when Asthana was to be elevated as CBI special director, Verma hit back. Asthana was, Verma noted, named in a corruption investigation and unfit for promotion. The allegations were related to alleged payoffs from Sterling Biotech, whose promoters — Nitin Sandesara, Chetan Sandesara, Dipti Sandesara and Hitesh Patel — have fled the country while facing charges.

Although the Sandesaras’ ties to Asthana were well known — family sources said they helped the officer resolve a delicate family matter in 2011, and his son interned with Sterling soon after — the Supreme Court found that the evidence against him was not compelling. Asthana was promoted but the conflict escalated.

In October 2017, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) had sent out a two-page note, claiming Rajeshwar Singh had made at least one phone call to alleged Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operative Muhammad Alam Danish Shah.

The note led to a furious reaction from Singh, with the ED saying the call was received to gather “important information regarding a case”.

In private, government sources said Singh admitted to having known Shah since the two were children and asked why R&AW had never questioned the supposed ISI agent on his regular visits to India. R&AW chief Anil Dhasmana, the sources said, was asked to examine the allegations that were later withdrawn.

ED boss Karnail Singh and Rajeshwar Singh blamed the ugly affair on Samant Goel, who had generated the supposed intelligence. A former Punjab Police officer who heads R&AW’s West Asia operations, Goel was a batch-mate and close friend of Asthana.

Both men, sources said, suspected Goel had done his friend a favour, hoping it would be repaid with Asthana backing him to the R&AW’s top post later this year, over the head of two seniors.

Rajeshwar Singh raised the stakes by writing a letter to Finance Secretary Hasmukh Adhia, accusing him of “siding with scamsters”. For its part, the CBI named Goel and Asthana in an FIR, alleging the R&AW officer acted as a conduit to funnel bribes meant for his batch-mate.

In response, Asthana wrote to the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), alleging Moin Qureshi-linked businessman Satish Babu Sana had paid Rs 2 crore to get out of the case. Asthana records Sana as saying he had “managed” Verma through a Telugu Desam Party politician.

Politicians inside the government rapidly lined up on either side of the feud. The Verma-Rajeshwar axis received endorsement from Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy as part of his long battle against Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Jaitley and Adhia turned to the prime minister, seeking backing to end the crisis.

Even Modi’s desperate efforts to bring about a ceasefire failed, and the threat that Verma might use the Rafale deal as a weapon in the battle forced his hand.

Who killed the parrot?

“Industry, Impartiality, Integrity: these must always guide your work,” CBI’s founding director Dharmnath Kohli wrote to his staff when he retired in May 1968 after five years at the helm.

In those years, post-Independent India had seen the first of the corruption scandals that would tear the polity apart: improper investments by the Life Insurance Corporation had cost the then finance minister TT Krishnamachari his job; former mines minister KD Malviya was caught favouring a Kolkata firm, and the then Punjab chief minister Partap Singh Kairon resigned over an accusation of financial impropriety.

These conflicts were, arguably, inevitable in an emerging polity. Local elite was, in essence, being asked to surrender power to a central authority. In return, they were offered privileged access to wealth and power.

Bureaucrats, in turn, were able to charge rents to give outsiders access to this world of privilege.

Indira Gandhi, however, proceeded to transform the CBI into a personal hit-squad, with its chief, D Sen, playing capo. In one case, four junior bureaucrats tasked with gathering data for Parliament on a business run by her son were raided and charged with disproportionate assets. The cases eventually collapsed — but the four officers were reduced to wrecks.

In less than three years after the Janata government came to power, the CBI saw four directors — SN Mathur, CV Narasimhan, John Lobo and RD Singh — amid bitter fights over handling of post-Emergency cases against Indira Gandhi.

Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s CBI director Mohan Katre sabotaged investigations into many scandals. The CBI didn’t name politicians in the chargesheet involving kickbacks for the purchase of Airbus A320 aircraft. Katre also ensured charges were not brought against Win Chadha, the Bofors’ agent in India.

The investigation team set up to look into the Bofors deal was disbanded by prime minister, Chandra Shekhar.

Thus it went on: SK Datta incurred the government’s wrath for pursuing bureaucrats named in the stock market scandal of 1992. His successor, K Vijaya Rama Rao, was accused of using corruption cases to silence former prime minister Narasimha Rao’s opponents in the Congress, and Joginder Singh, hand-picked by former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, was eventually shunted out for moving against a critical ally, the then Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav.

To pursue Amit Shah, the Manmohan Singh government was willing to overlook corruption. Last year, former CBI director Ranjit Sinha was accused of sabotaging the coal block scandal. Another former chief, Amar Pratap Singh, is being investigated for his ties to a Congress-linked businessman.

The Modi government did just the same, with predictable consequences. If Asthana or Verma, or both, are telling the truth about each other, the government is responsible for appointing and nurturing criminals in uniform. If both are incorrect, the government will have to answer for putting in office delusional, even crazed, individuals. For the prime minister, there is no way to emerge from this morass untainted.

Five decades ago, when Verma was still in college, the then home minister YB Chavan had promised a new law to regulate the CBI. In 1978, the LP Singh committee made suggestions to improve CBI functioning. In 1991-1992, a parliamentary standing committee called for a legislation to regulate the agency.

No government has shown the conviction needed to deliver on these promises: expedience seduces more surely than the most attractive principles.

The parrot’s corpse must be autopsied — and the cage thrown away — for any change to become possible. There’s no sign of political leadership, though that might be willing to do that.

Images from Press Trust of India and News18

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