Will Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s focus on the Union government’s decision to send Central Bureau of Investigation director Alok Verma on leave last week strengthen the party’s ongoing campaign on alleged corruption in the Rafale jet deal? Or will the move boomerang?

This question looms large ever since the Congress chief made Verma’s removal the centrepiece of the party’s drive against Prime Minister Narendra Modi with regard to the purchase of 36 Rafale jets from France. The Congress has accused Modi of tweaking the deal to help industrialist Anil Ambani, and has alleged that the Centre caused a loss to the exchequer by purchasing the jets at a much higher price than what was negotiated by the previous Manmohan Singh government.

The Centre sent Verma on leave late on October 23 following an unprecedented crisis that saw the agency raid its own offices last week and file a first information report against its second-in-command Rakesh Asthana, who has since been sent on leave as well.

Undoubtedly, the spat in the country’s premier investigating agency and the government’s midnight decision to divest Verma of his duties provided the Congress with the perfect opportunity to renew its attack against Modi. Having consistently accused the prime minister of irregularities in the Rafale jet deal, the Congress lost no time in linking the controversial deal to the CBI director’s abrupt removal.

Rahul Gandhi personally addressed a hurriedly called press conference earlier this week in which he alleged that the government had asked Verma to go on leave because he was set to initiate investigations into the purchase of the fighter jets from France. Stating that Modi had panicked into taking this hasty step, Gandhi declared, ”The government is not removing the CBI director but trying to hide the evidence in the Rafale deal. The PM reacted in a panic. The moment the CBI begins its inquiry into the Rafale deal, the PM knows he is finished.”

The Congress president followed up this blistering attack with a protest march to the CBI office on Friday to highlight Verma’s“illegal and unconstitutional” removal and to demand his reinstatement.

Congress vs BJP

In an election year, it was only to be expected that Opposition parties would use the ready ammunition provided by the latest CBI developments to attack the Bharatiya Janata Party. However, there is also a lurking fear that the Congress strategy to focus on Verma may end up derailing its campaign on the Rafale deal.

It will all depend on the Supreme Court’s final verdict in Alok Verma’s case challenging the government’s decision to send him on leave and appoint M Nageswar Rao as interim director. If the apex court reinstates Verma, the Congress campaign will get a major boost. Having led a lone and persistent battle on the Rafale jet deal, Rahul Gandhi would then stand vindicated. It would also energise the Congress cadre as it gets ready for an electoral face-off with the BJP.

On the other hand, if the Supreme Court upholds the government’s decision to send Verma on leave, it will be a big setback for Rahul Gandhi. It will be even worse if the Central Vigilance Commission, which is enquiring into charges of corruption against Verma, indicts the CBI director. In case of such a verdict, the focus will shift from the Rafale deal to Verma as a rejuvenated BJP will then attack the Congress for defending a tainted officer. So far, the BJP and the Union government have been on the defensive on the Rafale jet deal as well as the CBI imbroglio. But the pendulum could well swing in its favour. The Congress will then need to recalibrate its campaign.

Focus shifts to CVC

As of now, the Supreme Court has provided little indication of how the Verma case will proceed. In fact, both the BJP and the Congress have reason to believe that the odds are stacked in their favour. Hearing the case on Friday, the apex court did not rush to reinstate Verma. Its interim order said the inquiry against Verma, currently pending with the Central Vigilance Commission, be completed within two weeks and that it should be monitored by retired Supreme Court judge AK Patnaik. On the other hand, it restrained the newly-appointed interim CBI director M Nageswar Rao from taking any policy decisions. It also said that the details of the decisions taken by the new director, including the recent postings and transfers of CBI officers, be submitted to the court in a sealed envelope. The BJP was relieved that the court did not reject the government’s decision to ask Verma to proceed on leave and that it ordered that the vigilance inquiry against the deposed CBI director be completed. The Congress was happy that the new director’s powers had been curtailed and that the probe against Verma was to be supervised by an outsider.

But the Congress is taking no chances. With the focus now shifting to the Central Vigilance Commission probe against Verma, the party has now upped the ante against the commission by raising doubts about its neutrality.

A day after Verma was sent on leave, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that the late-night decision was taken following a recommendation from the Chief Vigilance Commission, which has a supervisory role over the CBI.

The Congress has now accused the Central Vigilance Commission of colluding with the Union government in showing Verma the door. Addressing a press conference with Congress general secretary Ashok Gehlot, the party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said on Saturday that Central Vigilance Commissioner KV Chowdhary had cancelled a scheduled foreign tour to hold an urgent meeting on the night of October 23, where it was decided to issue the “illegal order” against Verma. “A fraud was played on the Constitution by Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with the CVC, which is now out in the open”, said Surjewala.

The party’s latest line of attack is an attempt to mount pressure on the Central Vigilance Commission as its inquiry report on the deposed CBI director will determine the outcome of the court case which, in turn, will have a bearing on the Congress campaign on the Rafale deal. In case, the inquiry concludes that there is a prima facie case against Verma, the Congress will have a ready villain in the Central Vigilance Commission. And the Modi government will be accused of destroying yet another institution.