From the start, the very public fight within the Central Bureau of Investigation threatened to undermine the credibility not just of the agency itself but also of the highest levels of government, no less than the prime minister’s office. In the latest instalment of the feud, a petition filed before the Supreme Court by the agency’s Deputy Inspector General MK Sinha has charged National Security Advisor Ajit Doval of interfering in investigations against CBI Special Director Rakesh Asthana, even going so far as to stall searches on the latter’s house. The petition went on to claim that two middlemen involved in the bribery case against Asthana were known to Doval. It added that Union Minister of State for Coal and Mines Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhari, believed to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had received pay offs to the tune of several crores. While these are still allegations, the development gives rise to an urgent question: why is the Supreme Court not doing more to insulate the CBI battle from the trespasses of the executive?
Last month, the investigating agency was split wide open as its director, Alok Verma, and special director, Rakesh Asthana, traded corruption charges, a culmination of simmering hostilities between the two. As the agency sent Asthana on leave, the Centre appeared to take sides. In a dramatic midnight decision, the Centre forced Verma himself to go on leave, apparently “in the interest of fairness”. The legality of the move was questioned since it appeared to by-pass the high-powered committee empowered to vet the removal or transfer of the agency’s director. The Supreme Court, called upon to settle the matter in October, headed off the question, maintaining status quo, concerning itself with how the inquiry against Verma was to be conducted and barring the interim director form taking policy decisions.
But if the Centre was under a cloud for circumventing due process before, the charges against it this time are far more serious. They suggest active meddling in the case against Asthana and complicity on the part of the national security advisor and the prime minister’s office – the petition mentions a phone conversation where an officer of the Research and Analysis Wing is heard saying that the “PMO had managed the CBI issue”. They accuse a Union minister close to Modi of criminality.
If true, the charges have chilling implications for institutions already struggling to maintain their credibility, from investigating agencies to the prime minister’s office. In order to restore this embattled credibility, the allegations must be taken seriously. But neither the fresh charges nor the cases against Asthana and Verma can be put through anything approaching a rigorous probe unless the Supreme Court takes steps to insulate the investigations from the prime minister’s office.