Three people have stood out in the dramatis personae of the Central Bureau of Investigation saga in India. One is Alok Verma, the first CBI director to be sent on forced leave, a decision that appeared to come straight from the prime minister’s office in the dead of night last week. Second, Rakesh Asthana, the special director who was being investigated for corruption by the CBI and who was also sent on leave by the government along with Verma. But with the top two out of office for now, the spotlight falls on a third man: Mannem Nageswara Rao, appointed by the government as interim director of the CBI.

It is an appointment that has drawn a lot of interest. Although the CBI always had the reputation of being at the beck and call of the party ruling at the Centre, political interference in the investigating agency has seldom been so blatant before. The prime minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party are seen to be backing their old protégé Asthana – who was in charge of sensitive cases, many of which implicate members of the Opposition – against Verma.

According to the Opposition, Verma was removed because he was keen to investigate the controversial Rafale deal, which could bring down senior members of the government.

So where does Rao fit into the power struggle? His appointment as interim director has been seen as a coup for the 1986 batch Indian Police Service Officer. At least two of his previous appointments and promotions have been challenged before. A letter written by Rao to the home secretary in August this year suggests he was anxious about his progress in the police force.

While the 1986 batch is due for empanelment as directors general in the Central cadre, Rao seems to have suspected “personal prejudice” against him within the expert committee for 360-degree evaluation of officers. The committee is part of an appraisal procedure set up by the Narendra Modi government to vet the appointment of senior civil servants to Central government posts.

Rao levelled the charges of prejudice at one retired officer of the Bihar cadre who was part of the review committee for 1986 batch officers, and who had trained personnel from that batch in the past. This retired officer, the letter suggests, had been swayed by Rao’s colleagues in the Odisha cadre.

Rao wrote:

“I belong to the Odisha cadre. It is a well-known fact that IPS Odisha cadre is highly divided with incessant internecine fights amongst IPS officers, and therefore one’s career prospects will be jeopardised if the feedback sought happens to be from a wrong person of the cadre. In fact, I was a victim of that skulduggery during my empanelment to the rank of ADG [additional director general]. Once bitten, twice shy is the old adage. I, therefore, submit that the feedback from IPS officers in the Odisha cadre may kindly be taken with not just a pinch but a ladle of salt.”

Rao was made additional director general at the Centre in 2017. Since the appointments of the 1986 batch to the level of directors general have not been announced yet, it is not yet clear if his appeal was successful.

Another report suggests that Rao’s transfer to the Central Bureau of Investigation in Delhi in 2015 did not go unchallenged either. The head of the agency’s counterintelligence unit had then tabled an adverse report against Rao, saying he could not be inducted because of corruption charges against him and his alleged proximity to political parties. The objection was overruled.

This week, Rao was in defensive mode again, denying charges that his wife had been involved in a series of questionable financial transactions with a Kolkata-based firm. Whatever the merit of the charges, how is an officer with a controversial record the ideal pick for an investigating agency already reeling under charges of corruption?

The Hindutva cause

A number of news reports on Rao have trotted out a list of his achievements during his time in Odisha, when he served as superintendent in four districts: the “crisis manager” who was awarded for his work during devastating cyclones, the first in Odisha to popularise the use of “DNA fingerprinting” in criminal investigations, an officer who apparently played an active role in “releasing” the Lodhas (a denotified criminal tribe) from the cycle of crime and punishment, the recipient of several medals for distinguished service.

The Odisha that Rao helped police in the 1990s and 2000s was also a state riven by communal tensions, with frequent violence over religious conversions and the targeting of Christian groups. While Christian missionaries had a presence there, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had also expanded in the state. Rao, by some accounts, was not a neutral enforcer of the law.

An inflammatory speech made in 1998 reportedly had him transferred out of Behrampur the following year. At an event marking International Human Rights day, he had allegedly called Christians and Muslims “violent” and “intolerant”. The fact that taxes paid by the Hindu majority were deployed for minorities was a violation of human rights, Rao opined, before pronouncing the writers of the Constitution “pro-minorities”.

Ali Kishore Patnaik, president of the Odisha unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had then filed a petition in the state high court against the speech. The party has more accusations of communally tainted behaviour against Rao. In 1994, Patnaik claims in a Wire report, Rao circulated a letter in government schools, instructing them to discourage religious conversions among students. During the Kandhamal riots of 2008, when Hindu mobs went on the rampage in Christian settlements, Rao was inspector general of the Central Reserve Police Force in Odisha. He restricted the movements of paramilitary units, allowing saffron mobs to run amok, Patnaik alleges. But the reports that describe Rao as the “crisis manager” say he played a key role in “defusing tensions” during the riots.

Rao seems to have kept up a lively interest in Hindutva causes through the years, subscribing to the theory of the majority under siege. According to a report in the Economic Times, he has worked with organisations agitating for causes such as freeing temples from state control, beef bans, and scrapping laws that “favour minorities” and “discriminate” against Hindus. He is said to be close to Ram Madhav, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak-turned-BJP strategist, and is in attendance at events held by think tanks such as the India Foundation and the Vivekananda International Foundation, known for their links to Hindutva groups. This year, he reportedly helped draft the Charter of Key Hindu Demands, the genesis of which lay in an event organised by the Srijan Foundation in August. This charter is due to be presented to the prime minister soon.

Is it these outside interests rather than his array of medals that endeared Rao to the present dispensation at the Centre, enough for it to disregard corruption charges against him over the years?

Corruption cases

In July, Savukku, a whistle-blowing website dubbed the Tamil WikiLeaks, had pointed to irregularities in the purchase of land controlled by a consortium of banks headed by the State Bank of India. The website alleged that Rao did not initiate an investigation into the controversial deal despite being Chennai Zone head of the Central Bureau of Investigation at the time when the transaction was approved because he wanted to protect his friends. The matter had been first reported on the website in 2014, Savukku claimed, but the authorities did not take cognisance of it. These were the charges that the head of the counterintelligence unit reportedly brought up in 2015.

Then in November 2015, Rao faced an inquiry by the Odisha finance department for the alleged misappropriation of funds to the tune of almost Rs 3 crore in the purchase of fire department uniforms.

Rao has remained silent about these allegations even as he posted a denial on social media of the money laundering allegations against his wife. His rebuttal might have been seen as more credible if one of his first actions as interim chief of the CBI had not been to transfer 13 officers, including those investigating corruption allegations against Asthana. If the government is indeed trying to shield Asthana, Rao fits perfectly into its agenda.