Long before he found himself battling corruption charges, Rakesh Asthana was the CBI’s poster boy. A 1984-batch IPS officer, he had handled several high-profile probes, from the Purulia arms drop to the escape of liquor baron Vijay Mallya. But it was his handling of the fodder scam cases against Laloo Prasad Yadav that built his reputation as a no-nonsense officer. A right-hand man of U.N. Biswas, then joint director (east) heading a CBI team in 1996 to look into alleged embezzlement of Rs 900 crore, Asthana was instrumental in collating evidence against the powerful accused. In all, he personally supervised 54 cases, which led to the conviction of many, including Laloo and another former CM Jagannath Mishra. In his mid-30s then, Asthana was the CBI SP in Dhanbad when the Patna High Court asked the agency to take over the case.
An alumnus of Netarhat School in undivided Bihar, where his father taught science, Asthana was involved in all the investigations—from Laloo’s first interrogation to the raids on the CM’s bungalow. Asthana is said to have withstood immense political pressures during the fodder scam probe. In 1995, Laloo had returned to power and commanded a massive following in Bihar. Such was his popularity that a huge crowd, shouting slogans against the CBI, once followed him all the way when he and his wife, Rabri Devi, were summoned for questioning. Laloo had then taken a rickshaw from the CM’s bungalow to the nearby CBI office in an apparent show of strength, but Asthana and his team held their nerves. No wonder Biswas found him “incorruptible” during his tenure and stated in an interview many years later that he was “incapable of being dishonest”.
Asthana apparently made many enemies during his first CBI stint, but his role in the fodder scam, which cost Laloo the chief ministership, also endeared him to those on the other side of the political spectrum. On his return to Gujarat, he held key posts under Narendra Modi’s government before being brought back to the CBI. Last year, history was repeated when Asthana, who had taught history at Ranchi’s St Xavier’s College before cracking the civil services, oversaw a raid on Laloo’s premises related to the IRCTC scam. Old-timers in Bihar recall Asthana as someone who fought shy of any publicity, not someone with no qualms about getting featured in a video made to eulogise him.