By Dushyant Shekhawat Jan. 08, 2019
Since October, the CBI has been embroiled in an intra-agency squabble between its two top officers, Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana, over the Bureau's independence. The SC verdict reinstating Verma is a huge setback to the government, which had sent him on forced leave.
“CBI raids CBI” reads like a typo, the kind of headline that slips past a tired, sleepless copy-editor at the end of their shift. But as the drama that has been unfolding in the country’s top investigative agency since October proved, not only is the country’s top investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, actually performing raids in its own offices, there is a gaping rift between factions at the very top of the CBI’s hierarchy. The idea of the CBI raiding itself might sound farcical, but in order to understand what prompted the agency to score an own goal, we need to meet the cast of characters behind all the drama.
We start with CBI chief Alok Verma, who was reinstated to his post by the Supreme Court today after the central government passed a midnight order in October to send him on forced leave. Verma, a former Delhi police commissioner, took up his current post in February 2017. October found Verma living the dream of countless Twitter trolls as he met with PM Modi in person. Modi had issued the summons in order to mediate in the ongoing struggle between Verma and his second-in-command at the CBI, Rakesh Asthana. Verma met with the PM alone, where he recommended the removal of Asthana from the post of Special Director, a request he reportedly later reiterated in writing.
Despite being below Verma on the CBI pecking order, Asthana can boast more column inches and media coverage than his superior. When the high-profile raids of October took place, his name was trending on Twitter under the hashtag #RakeshAsthanaSupport. His loyalists claim that he is being unfairly targeted by Verma due to political motivations, though the fact that he has still not been arrested despite being named in an FIR reduces the credibility of those claims.
So this battle of CBI vs CBI is actually a clash between its two top officers, an intra-agency squabble that would be better described as Verma vs Asthana. The bad blood between the two isn’t new. In October 2017, Verma had opposed the appointment of Asthana as Special Director, due to the latter being embroiled in a bribery case dating back to 2011. Verma wasn’t the only one uneasy about Asthana’s elevation; his closeness to PM Modi and Amit Shah, fostered during his time serving in Gujarat police and as part of the Special Investigation Team enquiring into the Godhra riots, raised concerns about the CBI’s ability to function independently from the central government.
It’s a mind-boggling web of accusations, counter-accusations, and power-plays that feels ripped from a Tom Clancy novel, but it’s the reality of our top investigative agency.
Asthana’s appointment went through after the Supreme Court upheld the selection committee’s decision despite Verma’s misgivings, but that would not be the end of the Verma-Asthana tussle. As reported in The Wire, the two clashed repeatedly over differences in opinion, with Verma attempting to resist extra-constitutional interference in the agency’s functioning, and Asthana happy to go along with the (in)famous Gujarat model. An investigation into a money laundering case against meat exporter Moin Qureishi provided the flashpoint for Verma and Asthana to air their grievances publicly.
In August last year, Asthana filed a written complaint with the government that Verma had accepted a multi-crore bribe from businessman Sathish Sana. The complaint alleged that Sana had admitted to bribing Verma during interrogations related to the Qureishi case, giving Asthana room to claim he was being framed by Verma. However, the CBI claims that Asthana’s letter was fraudulent, and that he was not present in Delhi on the date of the supposed interrogation.
The discrepancy between Asthana and the CBI’s accounts forms the basis of the FIR that led to the raids, which led to the arrest of CBI officer Devender Kumar, who was the investigating officer for Sana’s interrogation. The FIR has also named Asthana as the recipient of the bribes paid by Sana, countering his claim that Verma accepted the bribes.
It’s a mind-boggling web of accusations, counter-accusations, and power-plays that feels ripped from a Tom Clancy novel, but it’s the reality of our top investigative agency. With Verma’s two-year term set to come to an end soon, and his second-in-command wrapped in a blanket of controversy, the future of the CBI’s leadership is entering an interesting chapter. The long-running, primetime hit show CID might have gone off air, but the law enforcement shenanigans are here to stay.