On Thursday evening, a day after he was reinstated by the Supreme Court, Alok Verma was removed as director of the Central Bureau of Investigation. It was a 2:1 decision taken by a high-level committee consisting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Supreme Court judge AK Sikri and Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, who strongly objected to the move.
According to reports, Verma’s continuation was found to be detrimental to institutional integrity. But his abrupt removal now caps a sorry saga in which due process was ignored, the government was accused of acting in a partisan manner and potentially to protect itself against investigation. The institutional integrity of the Central Bureau of Investigation has never been in graver doubt.
In October 2018, Verma was forced to go on leave in a unilateral midnight decision by the Centre. The Central Bureau of Investigation chief had been locked in a battle with his second in command, Rakesh Asthana, with corruption allegations traded by both sides. Shortly before the Centre’s move, Asthana had been forced to go on leave himself.
As the legality of the Centre’s decision was questioned, it was pointed out that Asthana was in charge of several sensitive cases implicating members of the Opposition, that he had risen through the ranks as a “super cop” in Gujarat, handling some of the most sensitive investigations during the years in which Modi had been chief minister of the state.
The Opposition also pointed out that Verma had been keen to investigate the Rafale defence deal, which could prove uncomfortable for senior members of the government. As the two top officials of the agency were sent on leave, the Centre appointed M Nageswara Rao, an officer with a controversial record and a penchant for Hindutva causes, as interim director.
Verma moved the Supreme Court, which gave the Central Vigilance Commission two weeks to conduct a preliminary investigation on the corruption charges against him. The results of the investigation were submitted to the court in a sealed envelope, a development that was criticised as it only served to deepen the secrecy and lack of accountability that had characterised the whole episode.
On Tuesday, the court cancelled the government’s October order, but stipulated that Verma could not take major policy decisions until the selection committee headed by the prime minister reviewed the report against him. One of Verma’s first actions on being reinstated was to reverse transfer orders made by Rao. In his dissent note, Kharge pointed out that six of the 10 corruption charges against Verma were unsubstantiated or false, while others required further investigation.
If the Centre had pressing reasons for removing Verma, who is due to retire on January 31, they are not clear from the evidence on record. It also needs to be asked whether the government will pursue cases against Asthana with the same alacrity, whether investigations on the Rafale deal will be allowed to proceed. Long ago, the Supreme Court damned the Central Bureau of Investigation as a “caged parrot” singing to the tune of its political masters. This episode strongly reinforces that impression.