Revoking the suspension order against Alok Kumar Verma, the Supreme Court has sent a clear message that the CBI director’s office is off limits to the government. The court has also reiterated the supremacy of the high-level committee comprising the PM, the Chief Justice of India and the leader of Opposition, and asked them to meet within a week to decide on the charges against Verma. The new chief to take over from Verma on February 1 is also to be decided by the committee this month. Meanwhile, Verma can sit in his office and preside over the agency’s day-to-day functioning. Until the committee decides on his case, however, the court has restricted his powers to “the exercise of the ongoing routine functions without any fresh initiative, having no major policy or institutional implications”.
A complaint against Verma had been made to the government in August 2018 and CBI special director R.K. Asthana later told the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) that Verma had accepted bribes from various sources, including Hyderabad-based middleman Satish Sana Babu. And on October 15, the CBI lodged an FIR to probe bribery allegations against Asthana based on information from Babu following his arrest. Interestingly, Asthana was the one who had moved for a ‘lookout circular’ against Babu. The allegations and counter-allegations between the two top officials of the CBI threw the country’s premier investigation agency into turmoil. Verma approached the Supreme Court while Asthana moved the Delhi High Court to quash the FIR lodged against him. The officials probing Asthana had also been transferred and some have approached the court for redressal. According to CBI sources, the episode has stalled several high-level probes that the agency is entrusted with.
The bench of CJI Ranjan Gogoi, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice K.M. Joseph clarified that the CVC has merely supervisory powers over the CBI, not extending to any “interim suspension or removal”. Verma’s lawyer Fali Nariman had argued that the law empowers a high-level committee to appoint the director and only the committee could take such decisions. The government had argued that the committee appointed an IPS officer as director, and he was subject to disciplinary control by the government as a public servant. The judgment has, in effect, shifted the onus of inquiry on Verma to the high-level committee.
“It is a balanced judgment with a pragmatic view,” says former attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi. “It has held against the government for not taking the PM-led committee’s permission, while acknowledges there are credible allegations by the CVC. To address these, a full reinstatement has not been ordered. Verma has been given similar powers as M. Nageswar Rao, who had limited powers as interim director, including ‘no fresh initiatives’. And there is the additional impediment of the committee taking a call on the CVC report within a week.”
Rohatgi believes there must be a relook at the “two-year, insulated tenure” for the CBI chief. “The idea is to give independence to the CBI, but seeing the example of two former directors who faced the heat—Ranjit Sinha and A.P. Singh—perhaps some other means of ensuring independence must be found,” he says.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who appeared for the NGO Common Cause, a petitioner in the case, has another view on what the limitation on Verma’s powers entails. “There was no need for a restriction on policy decisions, which does not bar him from registering FIRs or filing chargesheets, which are part of the CBI’s day-to-day functions.,” he says.
It’s believed in many quarters that Verma’s suspension was because he was reportedly contemplating an FIR on the controversial acquisition of Rafale fighter jets by the Narendra Modi government. Bhushan clarifies that Verma could still lodge an FIR as per the rules even while he awaits the committee’s decision on him. Along with former NDA ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, Bhushan had filed a complaint in the Rafale deal. With general elections just months away, an FIR could dent the Modi government’s public image.
- Alok Verma’s term as CBI director ends on January 31. The new chief will be decided by a PM-led committee.
- The Supreme Court has barred Verma from undertaking “any fresh initiative” with “major policy implications”.