The story of the war inside the Central Bureau of Investigation was always complicated. But the last two days have made them seem almost like a tragic farce, with characters entering and exiting offices, passing and reversing orders, all while an important institution’s reputation continues to lie in tatters. As of Friday, it seems final that former CBI director Alok Verma is out of the picture. He submitted a resignation letter after having been transferred to a position he said he could take up because he had already passed the retirement age.
But the path to getting there is complex and hard to follow. In short, Verma was investigating corruption charges against Rakesh Asthana, a special director in the agency who was also its second most senior officer. In turn, Asthana wrote to the Central Vigilance Commission accusing Verma of corruption, in the same case that he himself was being accused. For a full explainer on the accusations against both, read this.
This back-and-forth led to the unusual sight of the CBI raiding its own office, before the Centre, in a sudden midnight move in October, intervened to send Verma on leave, installing interim director Nageshwar Rao in his place. This move was challenged in the Supreme Court as being illegal. On January 8, the court found that transferring Verma was indeed a violation of law, setting in motion the following sequence of events:
- On January 8, the Supreme Court dismissed the Centre’s order sending Alok Verma on leave in October, saying it was illegal. But the court said that he would be unable to take any major policy decisions, and that the committee that appoints the CBI director – featuring the Prime Minister, an Opposition leader and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – should meet within a week to consider Verma’s case.
- On January 9, Verma returned to the CBI office, and passed orders reversing the transfer of a number of officers who had been moved out after he had been sent on leave and replaced with interim director Rao.
- That same evening, on January 9, the selection committee met and decided that Verma should be removed from the CBI and transferred him instead to the Fire Services department. The decision was made after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Supreme Court Justice AK Sikri, who was nominated as a representative of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, voted to remove Verma. The third member of the committee, Leader of the Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge, dissented, and later issued a note explaining his concerns about Verma’s removal, which included claims that the evidence was not substantial enough.
- On January 10, interim CBI Director Nageshwar Rao reversed all the transfers ordered by Verma, effectively re-issuing his own transfer orders from October that had been reversed when Verma was briefly re-instated on the previous day.
- Meanwhile, on the same day, January 10, the Delhi High Court refused to quash a First Information Report against CBI Special Director Rakesh Asthana on bribery charges. It is in part the feud between Asthana and Verma, who have both accused each other of corruption, that is responsible for this entire crisis within the CBI. The High Court asked the CBI to conclude the investigation into Asthana within 10 weeks.
- Also on January 10, Verma wrote a letter to the Centre refusing to take charge of the Department of Fire Services, and thereby resigning from the Indian Police Service. In his letter, he claimed that “natural justice was scuttled and the entire process was turned upside down” in order to oust him from the CBI. “The decisions made yesterday [Thursday] will not just be a reflection on my functioning but will become a testimony on how the CBI as an institution will be treated by any government through the CVC [Central Vigilance Commission], who is appointed by majority members of the ruling government,” he wrote.
As of January 11, then, the CBI is now being run by interim director Nageshwar Rao. Verma has resigned from service, after he pointed out to the committee that he had passed the retirement age and was only on special duty to the CBI. And the agency is continuing to investigate its number two officer, Asthana, against whom there are serious allegations of corruption.
A number of threads remain loose:
- Who will be the next CBI chief? The select committee comprising the prime minister, leader of Opposition and Chief Justice of India will have to decide on a new CBI chief, who will take charge of an institution that has been rocked by an intense amount of politicisation and infighting over the last few months.
- Will Nageshwar Rao allow the investigation against Asthana to continue? Rao has reversed Verma’s orders, including decisions to put a number of officers on the Asthana investigation. As a political appointee, it seems likely that Rao will not have an interest in permitting the agency to carry out a politically embarrassing investigation into the allegations against Asthana, even if that would be the correct thing to do – especially after the Delhi High Court has refused to quash the FIR against Asthana.
- Will the government be held accountable for its legal mess-up? The Supreme Court made it clear that the government’s late-night effort in October was patently illegal. Yet Modi, with the concurrence of Justice Sikri, has effectively achieved what he had hoped to do when his government sent Verma on leave in the first place. What does that say about the Centre and the rule of law?
- Should Modi have been on the committee in the first place? As pointed out here, there are accusations of the Prime Minister’s Office directly intervening in the CBI’s investigations and, as a result, being under Verma’s scanner as he examined the corruption charges. Was it right then for Modi to have been making decisions in this matter at all, when the conduct of his office has been called into question?
Maybe the most intriguing question of all might be whether Verma, who now has no path back to running the CBI, will open up about what exactly was being investigated. He put out a perfunctory statement, and wrote a letter saying the events of the last few days call for much introspection. But Verma certainly knows much more. The question is whether he will ensure it makes its way to the public domain.