The escalating infighting in the Central Bureau of Investigation has not only discredited the country’s premier investigating agency but also dented Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s carefully cultivated image as a decisive leader and tough administrator.

Modi’s record as a supposedly transformative chief minister of Gujarat was the central theme of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha election. He came with a reputation for empowering conscientious if low-key officials who executed his decisions swiftly and efficiently. His iron grip on the administration was said to have enabled him to remake Gujarat into a model state.

This image of Modi was held up in contrast to Manmohan Singh, who was labelled a weak, ineffective prime minister heading a dysfunctional coalition. His Congress-led government, both the BJP and commentators in the media would constantly point out, suffered from “policy paralysis” as ministers and senior bureaucrats operated autonomously. Singh, they would declare, had no control over his administration but Modi would run a tight ship.

So, when Modi took the reins, he was expected to shake up the moribund bureaucracy and deliver “good governance”. The current crisis in the CBI, with its chief Alok Verma battling his second-in-command Rakesh Asthana, shows the prime minister has faltered badly. “This CBI battle is a glaring example of poor governance,” remarked a former Union home secretary who asked not to be named.

Asthana, a Gujarat cadre officer known for his proximity to Modi, has sent a letter to the Central Vigilance Commission levelling several allegations of corruption against Verma. He is also reported to have accused Verma of impeding investigations into high-profile cases, especially that of money laundering against meat exporter Moin Qureishi.

Verma is seen to have hit back by getting the CBI to file a first information report against Asthana on charges of bribery as well as arrest a member of his team, Devender Kumar, for alleged forgery.

Both Asthana and Kumar have now approached the Delhi High Court, which means this drama will be prolonged as both sides continue to wash their dirty linen in public.

No timely action

The unprecedented crisis goes back to Asthana’s appointment as the CBI’s special director in 2017. He was reportedly hand-picked by Modi despite Verma’s objection that the officer was under the scanner in a corruption investigation into Sterling Biotech, a company in Gujarat. On the same grounds, Asthana’s elevation was later challenged in court by Common Cause, a non-profit.

In December 2016, Asthana was made the CBI’s interim director for a brief period after Anil Sinha demitted office and his deputy RK Dutta was abruptly moved to the home ministry. Asthana’s elevation had kicked up a storm then as well. Critics of the Modi government have alleged Asthana has been placed in the CBI specifically to handle sensitive cases against the BJP’s political rivals.

After the public feud made headlines, the prime minister finally stepped in on Monday. It was too little too late. The government could have saved itself the blushes had it taken timely action. It has justified its inaction saying the CBI is autonomous, but the fact is the agency is under the administrative control of the Department of Personnel and Training, which in turn is under the Prime Minister’s Office. It is mystifying that a supposedly efficient administrator as Modi did not act immediately to end the feud.

A retired bureaucrat said the crisis could have been easily resolved if the home secretary or the cabinet secretary had called both officials and told them to step back. “But to do so they needed a clearance from the prime minister which was obviously not forthcoming,” he added.

Modi’s mishandling of the crisis has given ammunition to his rivals. Congress chief Rahul Gandhi on Monday accused the prime minister of watching over “an institution in terminal decline that’s at war with itself”.

Senior Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan, a minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office under Manmohan Singh, also blamed Modi for the crisis. “Rakesh Asthana was an accused in corruption cases filed by the CBI, then why did the government appoint him an additional director in the agency?” he questioned. “Then, the CBI chief objected to his elevation to the post of special director. But the objection was overruled and Asthana was promoted.”

Chavan also wondered how the Central Vigilance Commission, which oversees the CBI’s operations, had cleared Asthana’s appointment and promotion.