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CBI V/s CBI is actually more of a tale about the govt’s invisible hand

In a dramatic overnight intervention by the government, CBI chief Alok Verma, his deputy Rakesh Asthana and several other officers were sent on leave
New Delhi: In a dramatic overnight intervention by the government, CBI chief Alok Verma, his deputy Rakesh Asthana and several other officers were sent on leave in the middle of an extraordinary battle within the country’s top investigating agency. M Nageshwar Rao has been appointed the interim director of Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) following the government’s midnight order that arrived at 1:45 am.

The various shades of grey in the story

Verma’s removal from the post has been met with severe backlash because the tenure of the director of the CBI is fixed for two years and the person cannot be removed by the government even on the recommendation of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) as was done in this case. The move is also under scanner because it follows close on the heels of Verma’s request to seek sanction from the government for arresting Asthana, who is a Gujarat-cadre police officer propelled to significance within the central investigative agency by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). It is also being alleged that Verma was taking interest in the details of the Rafale deal. The timing of the transfers is also under scanner because the investigative agency had a number of politically sensitive cases under its wing, right from Rafale to letting Kingfisher former boss Vijay Mallya escape and the Moin Qureshi case. An order widely circulated on Twitter shows that along with the No. 1 and No. 2 bosses at CBI, the government also made the decision to transfer a member of Alok Verma’s team and an investigating officer against Asthana, AK Bassi, to Port Blair with immediate effect. Even as the storm intensifies, Verma has challenged the government order against him in the court and it is set to be taken up for hearing by the Supreme Court on Friday.

How did it all begin?

The beginning of the tussle between Verma and Asthana dates back to 2017 when the latter was appointed special director at CBI. Verma had then handed a confidential letter to the CVC, challenging Asthana’s appointment on the ground that he was under investigation in the 2017 Sterling Biotech bribery case. But Asthana’s promotion was cleared. In June 2018, Verma wrote another letter to the CVC, saying that Asthana could not represent him in his absence because he faces corruption charges. In turn, Asthana responded by filing a complaint against Verma, accusing him of interfering in a corruption case involving the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) where family members of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad Yadav were listed as accused. The next blow came from Verma, who filed a First Information Report (FIR) against Asthana in a bribery case. On October 21, the CBI charged Asthana of accepting a bribe of Rs 2 crore from a Hyderabad-based businessman Sathish Babu Sana, who was under probe in the Moin Qureshi case in order to “wreck” the investigation. It was alleged that bribes were given at least five times between December 2017 and October 2018. The charged levelled against Asthana came to light after Dubai-based middleman Manoj Kumar gave a confessional statement before a magistrate stating that he paid Rs 2 crore to Asthana on behalf of Moin Qureshi, who is facing a probe by the CBI and the ED on charges of money laundering. Qureshi was arrested by the ED in August 2017 under Prevention of Money Laundering Act. On October 22, the CBI arrested its own DSP Devender Kumar in connection with the bribery allegations against Asthana. Kumar was remanded to seven-day CBI custody and suspended from the CBI pending investigation. Meanwhile, even as the midnight drama unfolded in New Delhi, the Delhi High Court has given Verma time till October 29 to respond to the allegations against Asthana.