Will the case filed by Central Bureau of Investigation director Alok Verma in the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the government’s order directing him to go on leave conclude before he retires in January?

There is a growing view in political circles that the case could well be set for a prolonged hearing. The Opposition, especially the Congress, is particularly apprehensive that its campaign to put Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the dock for destroying the credibility of the premier investigating agency will lose its sting if the matter is allowed to linger beyond Verma’s retirement.

The Congress stands to score a major moral victory if the Supreme Court pronounces a favourable verdict before Verma’s retirement and orders him to return to his post. Any delay in a favourable verdict will help Modi escape unscathed as the issue would have fizzled out by then.

The Opposition fears are based on the way the case has proceeded so far. The three-member Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, began hearings in the case on October 26, but it is yet to address the core issue of the petition in which Verma has challenged the government’s move to send him on leave in October. Maintaining that the Centre’s decision was “patently illegal and unconstitutional”, Verma said it was against the Supreme Court’s directions that had laid down a procedure for the appointment of the CBI director to insulate the official from government influence and interference.

Delays in submissions

Verma was divested of his responsibilities as CBI chief on October 23 following an ugly public spat with his second-in-command, special director Rakesh Asthana. The two officers had levelled corruption charges against each other and sent in detailed submissions in this regard to the Central Vigilance Commission. Along with Verma, the Centre had also sent Asthana on leave.

When the matter was first heard by the Supreme Court three days later, the judges did not go into the merits of Verma’s petition but instead asked the Central Vigilance Commission to complete its probe against the CBI director and to submit its report to them in a sealed envelope after two weeks. The court also appointed retired Supreme Court judge Justice AK Patnaik to monitor the inquiry.

The Central Vigilance Commission submitted a three-volume report on November 12 after examining Verma’s detailed replies to its questionnaire. The court was, however, not happy that the vigilance body had sent in its report late even though the court registry had been kept open on Sunday (November 11), as that meant that they did not have sufficient time to peruse the report before the hearing.

Consequently, the case was deferred until November 16. However, the bench did not take any action on the vigilance report at this hearing and instead handed over a copy to Verma to enable him to respond to its findings. The chief justice, however, hinted that the case could drag on when he commented that the report was “very complimentary on some charges, not so complimentary on some charges and very uncomplimentary on others.” As directed by the court, Verma submitted his reply on November 19.

However, the case took a new turn when it was heard on November 20. Furious that the details of Verma’s reply had been published by a news website, the judges refused to take up the matter that day. “None of you deserve a hearing,” the Chief Justice Gogoi said. “For reasons that need not be recorded, we don’t want a hearing.” The case was then postponed till November 29.

‘Grassroots campaign needed’

It can be assumed that the court will first examine the Central Vigilance Commission report and Verma’s response to it before it turns its attention to the government’s “illegal and unconstitutional” decision to strip him of his responsibilities in its midnight order on October 23. The Congress had gone on the offensive soon after, with party chief Rahul Gandhi leading the charge against the Modi government. Gandhi alleged that Modi had moved out Verma because he was all set to inquire into the Rafale aircraft deal, in which the Congress has alleged corruption. Gandhi also led a march to the CBI office to protest against the “illegal, unconstitutional and illegitimate removal of the CBI director”.

Besides taking to the streets, the Congress also sought judicial intervention. Mallikarjun Kharge, the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, moved the Supreme Court stating that the Centre’s unilateral decision to send Alok Verma on leave was illegal and violated the CBI Act. Kharge pointed out that as a member of the three-member committee that selects the CBI director, he should have been consulted on this decision. The prime minister and the Chief Justice of India are the other two members of this panel.

The Congress strategy to fight its political battles through the courts has not been received well by several senior party leaders who say that such campaigns are best fought by the workers in the streets. In political skirmishes, it is important to change the perception of the electorate, irrespective of the facts of a case, and that can only be done through effective communication, they said. Whether it is the case on the Rafale aircraft deal or the CBI director’s forced leave, overdependence on the judiciary could actually prove counter-productive, believe party leaders.