A war is taking place inside India’s premier investigation agency. On Monday, the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested one of its own senior officers, in a case involving bribes allegedly accepted by the agency’s no 2 official, Special Director Rakesh Asthana. The investigation into the alleged corruption of Asthana – believed to have been hand-picked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – comes amid the backdrop of Asthana accusing the CBI chief, Alok Verma, of illicit activity. Add to this cast of characters the infamous meat exporter Moin Qureshi, a special director in India’s external intelligence agency and shady middlemen, and you have a script more complicated than most movies.
Here is an attempt to simplify things a bit:
Who are these people?
- CBI Special Director Rakesh Asthana: The man at the centre of this entire furore, Asthana is a high-profile Gujarat-cadre officer who investigated the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra in 2002. When he was appointed by the Modi government to the CBI in 2017, Common Cause, a non-governmental organisation, had objected. It cited a corruption investigation into Gujarat-based Sterling Biotech, a company that maintained diaries of bribes in which Asthana’s name reportedly appears. Within the CBI, Asthana is in charge of a Special Investigation Team looking into the alleged corruption of officers connected to meat exporter Moin Qureshi.
- CBI Director Alok Verma: The head of the investigating agency and a former Commissioner of Delhi Police, Verma is said to have been opposed to Asthana’s appointment to the CBI from the very beginning, citing the Sterling Biotech case. Verma has been accused by Asthana of going soft on former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, in the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation tender issuance case, and for allegedly impeding the functioning of officers investigating corruption.
- Moin Qureshi: Starting off as the owner of a small slaughterhouse in Uttar Pradesh in the 1990s, Qureshi became India’s biggest meat exporter. He went on to becoming involved in a number of different businesses. He was known to be close to a number of senior people in the Congress-run United Progress Alliance government, and investigations later showed that he had been directly in touch with former CBI chief AP Singh. His success and wealth became a talking point, with Modi insisting during the election campaign in 2014 that Qureshi was being protected from Income Tax raids by then Congress President Sonia Gandhi. In February 2014, authorities raided his properties and the Enforcement Directorate has since been pursuing a Rs 200-crore money laundering case against him.
- Satish Sana: A Hyderabad-based businessman whose name also turned up in the Qureshi case. Sana was being investigated by the CBI. He gave a statement before a magistrate on October 4 saying that Asthana was trying to hush up the case against Qureshi in return for money, and that he had paid Rs 2.95 crore to public servants, including Asthana, to get relief in his own case.
What is happening now?
Start with Satish Sana. The CBI registered a First Information Report on October 15 on a complaint by Sana, under sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act related to public servants accepting bribes. The FIR names Asthana, Devender Kumar – the CBI Deputy Superintendent of Police who was arrested on Monday – as well as Manoj Prasad and Somesh Prasad, the two alleged middlemen who are also reportedly sons of a R&AW officer, and has been uploaded to the CBI site.
According to Sana’s complaint, starting in October 2017, he received numerous notices from Kumar, the CBI officer, to appear at the agency’s office, with which he complied. He claims that he was asked about his connections to Qureshi, but insisted he was not involved in any of the alleged corruption. Despite this, Sana claims that the CBI kept calling him in.
On a visit to Dubai, Sana met Manoj Prasad, an investment banker, who said he could sort out the CBI case. Sana claims that Manoj Prasad and his brother, Somesh Prasad, got him in touch with a CBI officer who promised to “solve” the matter in return for Rs 5 crore. Somesh Prasad, according to the complaint, told Sana that the officer was Asthana, and proved this by showing Sana the display picture of the contact on his phone.
“Believing them and to get rid of unbearable harassment and mental agony... I arranged and paid [the bribe],” although Sana didn’t pay the entire amount at the time, he intended to eventually do so. But, the complaint says, he continued to get notices from the CBI. Sana ultimately decided to take the matter to other authorities and filed the complaint.
A day after the CBI registered the FIR in the matter, it arrested the alleged middleman Manoj Prasad, who then reportedly confessed and recorded a statement before a magistrate. According to reports, Prasad named Samant Kumar Goel, the number two officer in the Research & Analysis Wing, as one of the officers allegedly involved in accepting bribes in order to close cases. Goel, however, is not named in the FIR.
The Sana case is the most direct effort from the CBI, headed by Verma, to take action against Asthana, who has been under the scanner ever since his name turned up in the Sterling Biotech diaries in 2011.
Is there another side?
According to Asthana, the entire case against him has been pushed at the behest of CBI chief Alok Verma, in an attempt to falsely implicate him. Asthana reportedly sent a letter to the Central Vigilance Commission, which oversees the operations of the CBI, on October 15 in which he claims that Verma and CBI Joint Director Arun Kumar Sharma are trying to frame him and have sent an officer of “doubtful integrity” to Gujarat to dig out cases against him.
Asthana has, over the last few months, written a number of letters to the Cabinet Secretary and the Central Vigilance Commission claiming there are 10 cases of corruption and irregularity against Verma. In fact, one of the cases that he brought up was the one of Satish Sana, in which he claims that it was Verma who accepted the Rs 2 crore bribe and then delayed his team’s request to arrest the businessman. Asthana claimed in the letter to the Central Vigilance Commission that other suspects had also discussed paying bribes to Verma, which prompted him to alert the commission.
Asthana has also claimed that he was taken off the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation tender investigation against former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav and the INX Media case against former finance minister P Chidambaram because of Verma.
What is Verma’s view?
The CBI director has not himself said anything. But he has tried to push back against Asthana’s attempts to level allegations against him both in those letters and in the media. In July, in a letter to the Central Vigilance Commission, the CBI officially said that Asthana could not represent Verma in matters pertaining to “inducting officers into CBI”. In September, the CBI press office took the unusual act of issuing a statement in this matter, calling Asthana’s allegations against Verma “malicious” and “frivolous”, a move that brought up questions of whether the agency’s official public relations wing should defend one of its officers when the CVC is looking into the matter.
In other words, the CBI director used the agency’s public relations wing to defend himself against charges of corruption, and is also using the agency’s investigators to look into the affairs of its own number 2 officer. On Monday, this led to the odd situation of the CBI carrying out a “raid” at the CBI office.
What is the government doing about it?
Because the agency is meant to be independent and not be susceptible to political interference, the law mandates a fixed two-year tenure for the CBI director. This means that, even if the government wants to side with Asthana – the number 2 who is believed to be close to Modi – it cannot simply dismiss the agency’s chief, Alok Verma. Rumours have suggested that the Centre has already begun shortlisting names to replace Verma, but that will only be possible in January, after his tenure ends. Until then, the CBI director is likely to continue investigating Asthana, who could even face arrest now that he has been named in an FIR.
On Sunday, Modi summoned Verma and spoke to him on the matter. Nevertheless, the next day, the CBI arrested Devendra Kumar, one of the members of Asthana’s team, and the agency reportedly raided offices in its own building. On Monday, Modi again summoned Verma, and this time has reportedly also called Asthana. But it is unclear what the prime minister intends to do.
Meanwhile, Congress President Rahul Gandhi also waded into the matter on Monday, calling the CBI an “institution in terminal decline that’s at war with itself.”