Parrots do quarrel noisily after all. But that was not the only revelation as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) self-detonated in full public view over the past few days. Hitherto a model of official reticence, the CBI offered a close-up view of its tainted innards to a disbelieving public. As the fratricidal war peaked, dirty linen flew in all directions. One story has not been told though: of how it was almost averted. The government had worked out an honourable exit plan for special director Rakesh Asthana, a 1984 batch IPS officer of Gujarat cadre who was in the eye of the storm. A diplomatic posting in London had been arranged to “rehabilitate” him before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But before the wheels could be put in motion, the muck hit the fan.
An unprecedented midnight shake-up was the only thing left to be done. In a dramatic set of moves spilling over to the early hours of October 24, the government divested CBI director Alok Verma and his deputy Asthana of their functions, power, duty and supervisory role in respect to cases they were probing. All other officers known to be close to them were transferred out. And M. Nageshwar Rao—a low-profile Odisha cadre IPS officer who, as joint director, was No. 3 in the CBI hierarchy—was given interim charge of the agency. The government cited “an extraordinary and unprecedented situation” as the reason. That it surely was. Spinmeisters may soon stretch that, though, by painting it as a clean-up rather than a mess—a kind of surgical strike on institutional rot.
Verma, for one, will not buy that. The 1979 batch IPS officer of AGMUT cadre wasted no time in approaching the Supreme Court against his removal. His plea is that a CBI director’s tenure is for two years, and an incumbent cannot be removed arbitrarily by government fiat. He can be removed only by the committee that appoints the CBI chief, comprising the PM, the Chief Justice of India and the leader of Opposition. As the drama shifts to the courts, though, the government seems confident that its plea of absolute exigency will suffice.
It’s a belated bid to impart calm and regain a sense of mastery over a situation that had become a point of major embarrassment. For, things had indeed spun out of control too quickly and the government top brass failed to keep pace with events, as highly placed sources confirm. Outlook spoke to several senior figures in the government, bureaucracy, police and intelligence agencies to piece together this remarkable story of combustion: even its bare-bone details resemble something straight out of a John le Carre conspiracy thriller.
Or something more lurid. Charges of corruption and bribe-taking were hurled at each other by the No. 1 and No. 2 of the CBI, an agency normally in charge of probing high-level corruption. Letters were shot off to the cabinet secretary, the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) and the PMO alleging interference in important cases. No. 2 was also accused in open court of running an extortion racket along with his junior, DSP Devender Kumar, in the “garb of investigation”. The latter is under arrest and in the CBI’s custody for seven days!
Besides the cases against them, the shake-up may also have a bearing on how some big-ticket cases move. Verma, for one, is said to have had shown interest in documents related to the alleged corruption in the Rafale fighter jet deal. For his part, Asthana was handling sensitive ones like Agusta Westland, the INX case against former finance minister P. Chidambaram, the hawala dealings of meat exporter Moin Qureshi, the IRCTC case involving RJD leader Laloo Prasad Yadav, Robert Vadra’s land deals and the Vijay Mallya case.
Most cases may still be able to cope with the sudden change in dramatis personae within the CBI, but the ongoing Mallya extradition case is bound to be adversely affected. By all accounts, Asthana was doing a good job and had succeeded in presenting a case tightly tied together. “Now with Asthana himself under a cloud of charges, Mallya is likely to plead before the UK courts that the officer is compromised and the investigation has little credibility. That has the potential to jeopardise the entire case against him in the courts there,” says a former CBI joint director.
The meltdown in CBI has also caused serious collateral damage—encompassing agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and RAW. The warring factions within the CBI—fronted by Verma and Asthana—have managed to divide other investigation and intelligence agencies, corralling up their respective set of supporters. A sharp wedge has been driven within the police establishment and the bureaucracy, which has not left even the PMO untouched.
Long-time observers trace the genesis of the war to the CBI’s gradual but near-complete politicisation . Appointments have for long been on considerations of loyalty, and each officer therefore claims a political godfather—or at least loose affiliations. These links are prone to becoming sources of conflict, reflecting the animus between the greater lobbies backing top officers. There are thus reports of a “Verma quartet” and an “Asthana quartet”, both comprising powerful people in the police and bureaucracy, backed by strong political interests. The Verma gang of four reportedly includes ED chief Karnal Singh, joint director Rajeshwar Singh and an outspoken politician. Asthana, meanwhile, is said to be backed by two senior PMO officials—retired Gujarat cadre IAS officer P.K. Mishra and Bhaskar Khulbe, a West Bengal cadre IAS officer—and finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia, a Gujarat cadre IAS officer.
“The onslaught of Gujarat cadre officers in positions of power has triggered antipathy in the larger babu ecosystem,” says a senior IPS officer. “The bureaucracy has struck back at what has increasingly become an incestuous group looking out only for one another, serving the vested interests of the government.” According to the officer, support for Asthana had divided the PMO. While he had the backing of one group, others in the PMO believed his continuation in the post was untenable. This tussle delayed the decision to evacuate him from the CBI. Sources say the decision to transfer him to London was taken in August itself as the situation had already become embarrassing for the government, with the Verma-Asthana spat becoming public.
The first public fireworks were witnessed last October when Asthana was appointed special director in the agency and Verma opposed it, pointing to charges of corruption against him. Asthana had been named in a Rs 3.8 crore bribery case relating to the controversial Baroda-based company Sterling Biotech in August 2017. The case was also being investigated by the ED. This was overlooked by the selection committee headed by CVC K.V. Chowdary, which went ahead with Asthana’s elevation.
By that time, the two top officials had already locked horns over personnel issues. When Verma took over as director in January 2017, he appointed A.K. Sharma, a 1987 batch Gujarat cadre IPS officer, as joint director (policy)—one of the most sought after posts in the agency. Asthana, in his capacity as acting director, had earlier denied him the post and now opposed Verma’s decision that catapulted Sharma virtually to No. 4 in the agency. Being from the Gujarat cadre, Sharma too is considered politically well-connected with the powers-that-be.
“Though from the same cadre, Asthana and Sharma seem to have had a fallout over some issue,” says a senior officer. “When Verma realised this, he decided to use Sharma to spite Asthana by making him joint director (policy), in the process gaining Sharma as an ally. So No. 1 and No. 4 ganged up against No. 2, while No. 3 (Rao) stood aside as a neutral spectator.” Sharma has now been transferred to the Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA) probing late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Deputy SP A.K. Bassi, considered close to Verma, has been transferred to Port Blair.
While Verma and Asthana were constantly sniping at each other, all communication between the two broke down in July 2018 when the director wrote to the CVC, saying his No. 2 could not represent him in meetings. He informed the CVC, through a letter written by the joint director (policy) on his behalf, that several officers being considered for induction “were under examination by the CBI as suspects/accused in criminal cases” and time would be needed for due diligence.
Millionaire meat exporter Moin Qureshi under arrest
The letter war escalated on August 24, 2018, when Asthana wrote to the cabinet secretary complaining that Verma had asked him not to question Sana Satish Babu, a Hyderabad-based businessman close to Moin Qureshi, and that he was trying to dilute the high-profile case in which Babu is a key witness. (Qureshi, a meat exporter educated in Doon School and St Stephens, emerged as one of India’s biggest tax evaders after an I-T search in 2014. Also accused of money-laundering, Qureshi was curiously alleged to be close to two former CBI directors, A.P. Singh and Ranjit Sinha.)
Things finally reached a head on October 15 with the unseemly spectacle of the CBI filing an FIR against its own No. 2, Asthana, on the basis of a complaint filed by Sana. The latter alleged he had paid Rs 3 crore as bribe to Asthana through a Dubai-based middleman. He claimed he had agreed to pay Rs 5 crore to him “after a middleman showed a picture of his contact (Asthana) on his WhatsApp number.”
Intriguingly, the name of another IPS officer, Samant Kumar Goel—1984 batch Punjab cadre and a special director with RAW—also came up in the FIR, as aiding the illegal deal between Asthana and Qureshi. Goel has not yet been formally named as an accused; his role is still being probed. Sources say Goel, heading the West Asia region for India’s external intelligence agency, believed he would be the next RAW chief, but now with his name coming up in the probe, chances seem slim.
Four days after the FIR was filed against him, on October 19, Asthana shot off a letter to the CVC, alleging that Verma was trying to shield himself since he is the one who was bribed by Babu. The No. 2 wrote that he had already brought it to the cabinet secretary’s notice through the August 24 letter. Verma reacted by taking away the case from the SIT headed by Asthana.
While this low drama played out at the CBI HQ, the ED suddenly filed a chargesheet in the Rs 8,000-crore money laundering case against Sterling Biotech, saying it had found as many as 174 shell companies run by the Sandesara family. The chargesheet, insiders say, piles up pressure on Asthana.
Another grey sub-plot relates to Rajeshwar Singh. What perhaps made him a natural ally of Verma is the fact that he believes he too was being targeted by the government. Singh, probing the Aircel Maxis and 2G cases, had taken on Adhia, accusing him in a letter of stalling his (Singh’s) promotion and even “compromising national security”. The department of revenue had then served him a chargesheet for “wilful subordination”. This parallel strand converges with the main plot: of the four JDs that Verma was trying to appoint, one was a relative of Singh’s. It’s this tangled mass of strands—of cross-connections, ego clashes and the strong hint of power lobbies in the background—that finally pulled apart the parrot cage.
The Simmering Bureau Broth
A timeline of murky events at the CBI in the past six years
- Caged Parrot “Many masters and one parrot” is how then CJI R.M. Lodha described the CBI after it was found that UPA ministers had tampered with its pleadings.
- Removal of CBI Director Director Ranjit Sinha was told to ‘stay away’ from the 2G case by the CBI. Those indicted in the case had visited his house many times.
- New Selection Process Lokpal Act changed the method of hiring the director, took away CVC’s power, created a committee of PM, opposition leader and CJI.
- Vijay Mallya Lookout Notice CBI first created a lookout notice for Vijay Mallya and then diluted it, allowing him to come into the country thrice before he made a run for it.
- Bansal Suicide Former DG, corporate affairs, B.K. Bansal and his son committed suicide after alleged harassment by CBI. Then CBI director promised probe. It’s still pending.
- Appointment of CBI Director Special director R.K. Dutta transferred two days before he would be CBI chief. Govt seemed keen on Asthana, but Alok Verma was appointed.
- Director’s Fixer CBI ex-chief A.P. Singh accused of ‘settling’ cases through meat exporter Moin Qureshi. Both were booked in criminal cases.
- Infighting The top two officials of CBI have a public war. Govt sends both on ‘forced leave’ (read: suspension). Probe pending. Both accuse the other of corruption.