Could Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most significant legacy end up being his bulldozing of institutions and disregard for protocol? Elected on a promise to provide decisive leadership, Modi has chosen to interpret this brief to mean that he will do whatever he wishes, and leave it to his ministers to figure out – or arrange – the legal rationale afterwards. This seems to have been true with demonetisation, with the Rafale deal, with various ordinances and, now, with the removal of Alok Verma as head of the Central Bureau of Investigation.
It is more than evident that Modi wanted Verma out of the CBI, no matter what legalities stood in the way, even though the prime minister had appointed Verma to the job. This explains the midnight action on October 24 that saw the government transfer Verma out of the CBI, a move that the Supreme Court later deemed to be completely illegal. That finding of illegality, however, did nothing to deter the government. Last week, it transferred Verma out of the agency anyhow with the concurrence of Justice AK Sikri, a member of the High Powered Committee to consider the case.
This decision seems to be murky too. On Sunday, Justice Sikri turned down a posting at a Commonwealth tribunal in London that the government had endorsed him for, presumably because of questions about a conflict of interest in accepting the job.
The actions of the High Powered Committee, which featured Modi, Sikri and Opposition Leader Mallikarjun Kharge (who dissented against the decision to transfer Verma) are now under question. This is because of comments from a former Supreme Court judge, Justice AK Patnaik, who had been appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee the Chief Vigilance Commissioner KV Chaudhary’s inquiry into charges of corruption again Verma. Chaudhary’s report formed the basis of the High Powered Committee’s decision to transfer Verma. It claimed that that the charges against Verma undermined his authority to head the country’s premier investigative agency. Verma resigned from service on Friday, soon after the transfer order was issued.
Justice Patnaik made public his discomfort with the committee’s actions. He told the media over the weekend that there was “no evidence” of corruption against the former CBI chief and that the committee’s decision in the matter was “very, very hasty”.
Even more troubling was the news over the weekend that, in his report to Justice Patnaik, Verma claimed that the Chief Vigilance Commissioner – the same person whose investigation formed the basis of Verma’s dismissal – had visited him in October 2018 as an “arbitrator” on behalf of CBI Special Director Rakesh Asthana. Allegations made by Asthana against Verma are the reason for the entire controversy in the first place. The Chief Vigilance Commissioner was supposed to impartially investigate them – not intercede on behalf of either party.
In waters so muddy, wading out of them now seems impossible. The Chief Vigilance Commissioner’s investigation report is now in doubt. This means the committee’s decision to transfer Verma on the basis of that report should also be in question. Justice Sikri’s role on the committee has also been commented on, because of the potential conflict of interest that comes with a government-approved posting. And Justice Patnaik’s comments, about the report lacking evidence of corruption and the transfer decision being hasty, speak volumes.
It is unclear if anything can actually be done about the situation, since all of India’s top oversight bodies – the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, the CBI and the Supreme Court – have been part of the process all along. Verma may be able to go back to court to navigate out of this quagmire. But if you shovel aside all the legal muck, the question that is still most pertinent for those who expect transparency and accountability from their government is this: Why was Modi so desperate to remove Alok Verma from the CBI?