Overcoming the hurdle of fixed two-year tenure of CBI chief who is embattled with his deputy regarded as close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Modi government staged a ‘coup’ of sorts in the wee hours of Wednesday through an order sending him on leave.

CBI director Alok Verma’s deputy, special director Rakesh Asthana, who had already been relieved of his responsibilities, was also told to go on leave. A joint director, M Nageshwar Rao, was appointed CBI’s ‘interim director’. Nageswar Rao will “look after duties and functions of director CBI and shall take over the duties and functions with immediate effect,” said the order by an appointments committee led by the Prime Minister.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who held a press conference to justify the move, said this was done for fair investigation into charges against the two officers.

Verma moved the Supreme Court against the government order. The top court will hear the matter on Friday.

Alok Verma’s petition

Alok Verma in his petition to the Supreme Court said that the government’s decision to divest him of his role was “patently illegal” as the law mandates a 2-year tenure of CBI director to ensure the agency’s independence.

“Decision of transfer of CBI director rests with a high powered committee comprising the Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition and the Chief Justice of India. Centre’s decision goes against SC directions for an independent CBI,” the petition reads.

Verma alleged in his petition that not all influence exerted by the government is explicit or in writing. “More often than not, it is tacit, and requires considerable courage to withstand it,” he says. Claiming that the autonomy of the country’s premier investigating agency is being compromised, he said there are bound to be occasions when “certain investigations into high functionaries do not take the direction that may be desirable to the government.”

Verma further alleged in his petition that Rakesh Asthana, whose appointment as special director was despite his reservation, stymied decisions crucial to the progress of investigation in sensitive cases, some of them being monitored by Supreme Court. He said that in the recent past, when senior officers of the agency agreed on a certain course of action in cases, Asthana took a different view and posed hurdles.

The offices of both Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana were being searched on Wednesday. The CBI spokesperson said: “Team probing #RakeshAsthana’s case has been reconstituted for a fair, impartial and expeditious probe. We have put available best resources in the reconstituted team. There were searches and sealing any offices are totally untrue. CBI is working normal.”

Meanwhile, Rao, the newly appointed head of the investigative agency, was also, said a report on the news portal The Wire, facing investigation in a corruption case – just as Asthana was facing even at the time when he was brought into CBI and made ‘interim director’ for a few months.

Rao’s first decision was to transfer out the officers probing the case against Asthana and appoint a new team.

In a shake up, three officers probing the Rakesh Asthana bribery case among 13 others were been transferred. The officers include investigating officer Deputy SP Ajay Bassi, joint director Arun Sharma and DIG Manish Sinha.

Bassi, has been shunted to Port Blair in “public interest” with “immediate effect”.

Rao has appointed Satish Dagar as Superintendent of Police to probe the case against Asthana. Dagar has in the past probed cases against Dera Sachcha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim.

His first supervisor will be DIG Tarun Gauba, who had probed Vyapam cases.

At joint director-level, V Murugesan has been brought in. The Supreme Court had reposed faith in Murugesan in the coal scam probe.

All sensitive cases including Vijay Mallya and Agusta Westland cases will be personally supervised by new interim Central Bureau of Investigation chief Nageshwar Rao, ANI reported.

Who is M Nageshwar Rao

Nageswar Rao, an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer of the 1986 batch, joined the CBI in 2016. Rao is from Warangal in Telangana. A chemistry post-graduate from Osmania University, he did research in Madras IIT before joining the IPS. Rao, say sources, is reputed to be a tough cop and decorated administrator. He earned accolades for his handling of his first posting in Odisha’s Talcher, notorious for coal smuggling.

He was also credited with effective anti-insurgency operations in Manipur.

According to reports, he was the first officer in Odisha to use DNA fingerprinting to solve a rape case.

He also worked as Additional Director General of Police (Railways), Orissa.

Nageshwar Rao is the first IG-level official ever to be chief of the CBI. CBI director Alok Verma wanted action against him too but the Modi-appointed Chief Vigilance Commissioner, KV Chowdhary resisted, said a report on news portal The Wire.

A petition has been filed in Bombay High Court seeking setting up of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) for an investigation into Alok Verma – Rakesh Asthana issue. The petition also demands a retired Supreme Court judge in the SIT, said another ANI report.

CVC statement

While FM Jaitley addressed a press conference defending the government’s decision, the Central Vigilance Commission also issued a statement on the issue, citing non-cooperation of the CBI Director Verma in not furnishing documents relating to allegations against him made by his deputy Asthana.

“The grave allegations of corruption by senior functionaries of CBI one against another, which has been widely reported in media, has vitiated the official eco-system of the organization. The environment of faction feud has reached its peak in the CBI leading to a potential loss of credibility and reputation of the Agency,” the statement said.

“Despite repeated assurances and reminders, the Director, CBI failed to furnish the records / files before the Commission. The CVC has observed that Director, CBI has not been cooperating in making available records / files sought by the Commission relating to serious allegations,” said the CVC.

“The CVC has also observed that the Director, CBI has been non-cooperative with the Commission, non-compliant with the requirements/directions of the Commission and has created wilful obstructions in the functioning of the Commission which is a Constitutional body,” the statement further said.

However, said a report in The Indian Express (IE), the CBI in an official letter to CVC earlier this month had stated that it (CVC) “declined to share the complaint or details” of the complaint made by Asthana “against CBI officers investigating his cases”.

CBI letter to CVC seeking details of complaint against Alok Verma

This letter came in response to letters by CVC seeking files from CBI on a complaint filed by Asthana against Verma and some other officers of the agency.

“In the interest of fairness and the legal sanctity of investigations, it is important that CVC shares with the bureau details about the complaint and reference in which cases are mentioned by Shri Rakesh Asthana,” stated the letter written by CBI’s Chief Vigilance Officer and Joint Director (Policy) on October 9, adding that the investigation agency “will have to device a method after seeking legal opinion to deal with those files that will withstand the highest level of probity”.

Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana have been at loggerheads since the time the government appointed the latter to CBI. Verma had made his objections clear in writing to the CVC, mentioning that Asthana was being investigated in several corruption cases and it would not be proper to appoint him as special director in CBI.

The letter stated that while the CVC had denied a copy of Asthana’s complaint to the agency on September 19, several media houses “have been liberally quoting from it to target officers investigating cases against the complainant”.

“Going by the media reports, Shri Rakesh Asthana has deliberately twisted facts,” the letter stated, “there was undue haste adopted in some of the investigations that are supervised by the Special Director (Asthana)” which is “part of a deliberate design” by him.

The CBI also said that although its files “are confidential and are not public documents,” it has “shared some of the files sought by the CVC and cooperated with the CVC”. It sought time from the CVC for “providing the remaining files since they need to be examined legally and if required, redacted in order to protect the integrity of the investigation”.

The complaint by Asthana was first reportedly made to the government which then referred the matter to the CVC. Asthana ha alleged that Verma had sought to impede his functioning, interfere in investigations and malign his reputation on the basis of unverified facts.

The CBI later issued a statement which said, “It is unfortunate that baseless and frivolous allegations are being made publicly without proper verification of facts to malign the image of the Director of CBI and intimidate the officials of the organisation.”

Government’s statement

In its first response to the ongoing turmoil in CBI, the government has said that divesting Verma and CBI special director Rakesh Asthana of their charges was essential to maintain the agency’s “integrity”.

Speaking to media, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said: “To maintain the institutional integrity of CBI and in the interest of fairness, purely as an interim measure, they will sit out by going on leave. An SIT not functioning under either of these officers will investigate. This is in accordance with highest standards of fairness.”

Jaitley said that the government would ensure that the probe is not turned into mockery. “The orders of the government are in line with the decisions of CVC.”

The finance minister said that the matter involves corruption cases in CBI and the CVC would undertake the probe. He said that in a CVC meeting yesterday it was decided that under law, the two senior officers cannot probe allegations against and cannot oversee the investigations. “This is the hghest standard of fairness to send them on leave,” he said.

Terming the controversy at CBI as ‘unfortunate’, Jaitley said that the investigation is underway and no conclusions can be made. “Top two officers of the CBI are levelling allegations against each other. Who will investigate them? The government won’t,” he said.

He also rubbished the allegations of malafide intent in removing CBI chief Verma that the opposition levelled against the government. “Does the opposition want the officers being investigated to head that very investigation?” Jaitley asked.

At a press conference in Delhi, Arun Jaitley, however, dismissed as “rubbish” allegations that Verma was removed because he wanted to look into the Rafale fighter jet deal. He said the government’s decision to remove Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana is based on the Central Vigilance Commission’s recommendations.

The Press Information Bureau (PIB) issued a statement on the lines of the CVC statement above:

The grave allegations of corruption by senior functionaries of CBI one against another, which has been widely reported in media, has vitiated the official eco-system of the organization. The environment of faction feud has reached its peak in the CBI leading to a potential loss of credibility and reputation of the Premier Investigating Agency of the Government It also vitiated the working environment of the organization which has deep and visible impact on the overall governance.

  1. The CVC, on receipt of a complaint on 24th August, 2018 containing various allegations against the senior functionaries of the CBI has served three separate notices (under section 11 of CVC Act, 2003) on 11th September, 2018 upon the Director, CBI to produce files and documents before the Commission on 14″‘ September, 2018. Various opportunities have been given to produce such records and after several adjournments, though CBI assured the Commission on 24th September, 2018 to furnish the records within three weeks. Despite repeated assurances and reminders, the Director, CBI failed to furnish the records / files before the Commission. The CVC has observed that Director, CBI has not been cooperating in making available records / files sought by the Commission relating to serious allegations.
  2. The CVC has also observed that the Director, CBI has been non-cooperative with the Commission, non-compliant with the requirements / directions of the Commission and has created willful obstructions in the functioning of the Commission which is a Constitutional body.
  3. Considering the extra-ordinary and unprecedented circumstances which has emerged, the Central Vigilance Commission in exercise of its powers (section 8 of CVC Act, 2003) of superintendence over the functioning of DPSE (CBI), in so far as it relates to the investigation of offences alleged to have been committed under Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. has passed orders divesting Shri Alok Kumar Verma, Director, CBI and Shri Rakesh Asthana, Spl. Director, CBI of the functions, power, duty and supervisory role in respect of cases already registered and/or required to be registered and/or being inquired/enquired/investigated under the provisions of Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, until further orders.
  4. The Government of India having carefully examined and evaluated the material made available to it, and being satisfied that an extra-ordinary and unprecedented situation has arisen which demands that Government of India shall exercise its powers under Section 4(2) of the DPSE Act. The Government of India has evaluated the material before it and in the interest of equality, fair play and principles of natural justice, decided to divest Shri Alok Kumar Verma, Director, CBI and Shri Rakesh Asthana, Spl Director, CBI of their functions, power, duty and supervisory role in any manner as Director, CBI and Spl. Director, CBI respectively.
  5. This has been done as an interim measure and will subsist “till the CVC concludes its inquiry into all issues which have given rise to the present extra-ordinary and unprecedented situation and till the CVC and/or Government of India takes an appropriate decision in accordance with the law as regards to the measures to be adopted as a consequence thereof”.
  6. In view of the above background, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet has approved that during the period of such interim measure, Shri M. Nageshwar Rao, IPS, presently working as Joint Director, CBI shall look after the duties and functions of Director, CBI with immediate effect.

Opposition’s attack

The controversy spilled over to the political realm with the Congress and other opposition parties alleging a Rafale link to the move. At a poll rally in Rajasthan, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi said the Narendra Modi government “removed” Verma as CBI director overnight to stall probe into the Rafale fighter jet deal with France.

Targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the CBI row, Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday alleged that its Director Alok Verma was removed because the agency was raising questions over the Rafale fighter jet deal. Addressing a public rally in Rajasthan’s Jhalawar district, the home turf of Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, Gandhi also alleged that Mehul Choksi deposited money in the bank account of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s daughter, PTI reported. The CBI director was removed last night because the agency was raising questions over Rafale, Gandhi alleged, adding that Verma had asked for documents of the fighter jet deal.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has alleged that the CBI has become the BJP’s policing agency. The Trinamool Congress chief’s remarks come amid the ongoing spat between two top officers of the agency.  “CBI has now become so called BBI (BJP Bureau of Investigation) – very unfortunate!” Banerjee tweeted.

Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi rapped the government over its stand on the CBI controversy. He said that the government compromised with the integrity of CBI to save itself from being exposed in Rafale scam. “This unconstitutional and illegal move has ashamed India,” Singhvi said.

Questioning the government’s stand on the CBI controversy, the Congress said the decision should have the approval of the selection committee. “CVC has no jurisdiction to appoint or remove any CBI officer. It’s role is strictly of supervision,” the Congress quipped. It also accused the government of  misleading  the country.

The Rafale link was also raised by Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal who tweeted: “Is there a co-relation betn Rafale deal and removal of Alok Verma? Was Alok Verma about to start investigations into Rafale, which cud become problem for Modi ji?”

BSP chief Mayawati also ramped up her attack on the centre and said that the misuse of government machinery and interference in the agency’s working is a cause of great concern. “Misuse of government machinery and interference in CBI’s functioning have earlier also caused disasters and the ongoing disturbance at CBI is a matter of great concern for the nation. It’s good that the matter that also had interference of central government is before the Supreme Court now,” Mayawati was quoted as saying by ANI.

Questions about Rafale link:

The CBI Director Alok Verma was readying himself to initiate a preliminary enquiry (PE) in to the Modi government’s controversial decision to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft from Dassault Aviation, with a major part of the offset contracts going to an Anil Ambani-led company, said a report on The Wire.

While the Supreme Court has asked the government to inform it of the procedures it has followed in the entire aircraft deal, Verma too had moved to ask the Ministry of Defence for some critical Rafale deal documents, authoritative sources told The Wire.

The move came after a meeting between Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Doval who, reported The Wire, were in a huddle from early evening.