Lodhi Road in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi witnessed dramatic scenes at around 1 am on Wednesday as the Modi government launched a virtual coup against the Central Bureau of Investigation. At around 12.45 am, reported NDTV, the Delhi police cordoned off the agency’s headquarters. Orders to send Central Bureau of Investigation director Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana on leave were issued by the Union government. An interim director, M Nageswar Rao, was appointed and escorted to the CBI headquarters by the Delhi Police.
Alok Verma’s office was searched and sealed. On Wednesday morning, both Verma and Asthana were stopped from entering their offices as they called in to work. Among interim director Rao’s first acts was to order the transfers of 13 other officers, some of whom worked closely with Verma.
These extraordinary developments come on the back of an internecine war between Verma and Asthana. Verma had accused Asthana of accepting bribes. As it pursued this case, the CBI in an unprecedented move raided its own office on Monday. On his part, Asthana had accused Verma of political favouritism and also of taking bribes, writing to the Central Vigilance Commission on August 24 with his complaint.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley argued that the decision to send the two top officials on leave was due to a recommendation by the Central Vigilance Commission – a recommendation that is not in the public domain. “It was absolutely essential to restore the agency’s institutional integrity and credibility,” Jaitley said.
However, far from restoring public faith in the CBI, the decision only dilutes it further. The chief of the CBI enjoys a fixed two-year term. The Union government cannot end it arbitrarily. In the 1998 Vineet Narain & Others vs Union of India Supreme Court case, the Supreme Court defines the powers of a selection committee to choose the CBI chief. The judgment is clear: “The transfer of an incumbent director, CBI, in an extraordinary situation, including the need for him to take up a more important assignment, should have the approval of the selection committee.”
Since 2013, as per the terms of the Lokpal Act, this selection committee is to consist of the prime minister, the leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha and the chief justice of India or a judge of the Supreme Court nominated by him. No selection committee recommended Verma’s forced leave. It was done on the orders of the Union government alone.
Moreover, the role of the Central Vigilance Commission in the Central Bureau Of Investigation only comes in to play when there is a case under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. No such case exists against Verma. Hence, the Union government’s argument that it was acting on the advice of the Central Vigilance Commission does not hold water either. It is uncertain how the government will defend its decision when the Supreme Court on Friday hears Verma’s petition challenging the order sending him on leave.