What prompted the government’s late-night decision on Monday to send Central Bureau of Investigation director Alok Verma on forced leave? The last week has seen open battle between the two top officials of the investigating agency, Verma and his second-in-command, Rakesh Asthana. After Asthana was forced to go on leave, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley explained after the dramatic midnight coup, Verma was dismissed “in the interest of fairness” and to maintain the credibility of the institution.

However, the legality of the Narendra Modi government’s midnight decision has been questioned, putting its own credibility at risk. Allegations of corruption have been made by both sides, but it is Asthana who is the object of greater curiosity.

In the life of this government, Asthana has headed a special investigation team looking into politically sensitive cases, many of which implicate members of the Opposition. These include the AgustaWestland defence scam, corruption charges against Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, the investigations regarding tycoon and loan defaulter Vijay Mallya and the Rajasthan ambulance scam. As Asthana went after quick results in these cases, it earned him the reputation of being the blue-eyed boy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah.

However, Asthana’s association with Modi and Amit Shah is much longer, going back to their Gujarat days, when he handled some of the most sensitive cases in the decade that followed the riots of 2002.

A fan of the ‘iron man’

The 1984 batch Indian Police Service officer was born in Ranchi, educated at Jawaharlal Nehru University and taught briefly at St Xavier’s College in Ranchi before joining the Gujarat cadre. He first gained prominence in the mid-1990s when, as superintendent of police in the Central Bureau of Investigation, he grilled Lalu Prasad, who was then Bihar chief minister, about the fodder scam. Prasad was at the peak of his political might and considered beyond reach for many officers. But the chargesheet filed after the interrogation was the basis for the politician to be arrested in 1997.

In 2000, Asthana was reported to have made the acquaintance of BJP veteran LK Advani after he was put in charge of the politician’s security detail during a visit to Gujarat. Some accounts suggest that Advani became impressed with Asthana after a brief chat, during which the police officer said that his his political idol was Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the “iron man of India”.

Patel seems to have been an abiding favourite. A “motivational video” uploaded in April 2018, which stars Asthana striding purposefully and tapping the palm of his hand with his policeman’s baton, compares him to Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose and Swami Vivekananda. During his time as a police officer in Gujarat, the narrators claims, Asthana not only brought down the crime rates but also spread love and trust. The video is testimony to the celebrity status Asthana had gained in Gujarat. He was the “supercop”, a particular variety of “dabang”, or forceful, police officer who became popular in that decade of terror attacks.

In 2002, Advani, it is said, introduced Asthana to Narendra Modi, who was then Gujarat Chief Minister. Soon, he was heading the probe on the Godhra train burning, which killed 59 kar sevaks and sent the state into convulsions of violence.

From Gujarat

The incident occurred on February 27, 2002. To investigate the tragedy, the Modi state government initially invoked the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance, (later turned into an Act), but then retracted it. More than 50 people, including Muslim politicians, were arrested. But the chargesheet filed in March 2002 made no mention of the attack on the train being planned. On May 27, 2002, the state government appointed a special investigation team headed by Asthana to look into the case.

By July 9, the investigation seemed to have changed track, with statements naming a local Muslim trader as the kingpin of the attack. The chargesheet filed in September 2002 by Asthana’s investigating team advanced the theory that the fire was planned. By February 2003, charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act were back. (They were later be dropped by a POTA review committee appointed by the United Progressive Alliance in 2005.)

The case wound through the courts for years. In 2011, the court sentenced 11 people to death and 20 to life imprisonment. In 2017, the Gujarat High Court commuted the death sentences to life terms.

In 2008, Asthana was put in charge of the Ahmedabad bomb blast case as 22 explosions ripped through the Gujarat city, killing 56 people. A report from that time speaks of how the tragedy dented Modi’s reputation as a “different” kind of chief minister, one who had won two successive state elections on the “plank of security”. The blast had been preceded by an email purportedly signed off by the Indian Mujahideen, claiming responsibility for the strike and taunting the state administration to stop it if it could.

The police officers who played a prominent role in the probe that followed included Abhay Chudasama, accused in the 2005 Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. In 2008, Chudasama was deputy commissioner of police and Asthana was police commissioner of Baroda. “As soon as the news came out that Baroda might have been used as a conduit by the conspirators, Asthana formed a special team of hardly four-five people,” the report says. In order to keep the investigation in Ahmedabad and Baroda secret, it continues, a “news-hungry media” was fed with “irrelevant stories” and sketches of the accused that may have been of dubious authenticity.

Asthana pursued members of the outlawed Students Islamic Movement of India. The Gujarat police were credited with having cracked the case in just 22 days. A terror operation that could have been a major embarrassment for the Gujarat government had all the trappings of a success story.

Modi moved to Delhi with the BJP’s victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Asthana was summoned to the capital to become part of the Central Bureau of Investigation. Other Gujarat officers were also brought in, including AK Sharma, who had been inspector general (intelligence) in the around the time of the “snoopgate” case, which implicated Modi himself and which soon died in the wilderness.

To Delhi

Asthana’s tenure in Delhi has been less smooth. When he was promoted to the post of CBI special director in 2017, a non-governmental organisation called Common Cause, represented by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, challenged the selection committee’s decision in the Supreme Court. It claimed Asthana was unfit to be part of the country’s top investigating agency.

He had been named in the “diary of 2011”, seized from the offices of Sterling Biotech, a company being investigated for money laundering. The records in it seemed to suggest that he had received payments to the tune of 3.83 crore, it was alleged. The diary was the basis for a first information report filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation in 2017, though Asthana was not named in it.

Rakesh Asthana and Alok Verma. Credit: HT Photo

Through the course of the court hearings, it emerged that Verma himself had voiced objections to the selection committee, sending a note listing out the corruption allegations against Asthana. His objections had been overruled, it was believed, because of Asthana’s proximity to Modi and Shah. Common Cause’s petition was dismissed by the court. The organisation returned with a review petition in December 2017, armed with “new and important material”, it said.

The matter flared up again in July this year, when Asthana approved the a raft of new appointments while Verma was away on duty. In a letter written to the Central Vigilance Commission, Verma said his second-in-command was not mandated to represent him in such matters, that several officers being inducted were being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, that Asthana himself was “under the scanner”.

On October 15, the investigating agency named Asthana and other officers in a first information report, booking them under sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act. This was done after a complaint by a Hyderabad-based businessman, Satish Sana, who claims he was summoned repeatedly by the central agency for questioning, even though he had nothing to do with the corruption case where his name had cropped up. An unidentified officer had allegedly promised to “solve” this problem for a sum of Rs 5 crore. Sana claims he can prove this officer was Asthana.

Meanwhile, the Sterling Biotech case surfaced again in September as the Enforcement Directorate seized the properties of Chetan and Nitin Sandesara, the company’s directors and now fugitives in a massive loan default case. While the directorate had then made it clear that it was not investigating Asthana, the Central Bureau of Investigation has been making its own queries, which seem to have yielded links between the special director and the Sandesaras. As it examined the costs of Asthana’s daughter’s wedding, which took place in Vadodara in 2016, the agency seems to have found that several high-end venues for the functions and some of the catering were provided on a complimentary basis. These favours appear to have been arranged by the Sandesaras.

The investigations were conducted by AK Sharma, Asthana’s old companion from Gujarat. In Delhi, Sharma is alleged to have joined forces with Verma. Asthana has complained the rival camp deliberately removed him from investigations against his old quarry, Lalu Prasad, now embroiled in the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation scam. Evidently, the ghosts of the Gujarat cadre still haunt Delhi.