The fight between Verma and Asthana started over petty issues and then blew up to become an ego battle.
The midnight clampdown by the Narendra Modi government on the Lodhi Road headquarters of the Central Bureau of Investigation, sending director Alok Verma and special director Rakesh Asthana on leave, has shaken the power balance at many levels and in many ways in New Delhi.
First of all, the brute action was designed to show Prime Minister Modi’s fabled grip on the bureaucracy. However, even those who supported the clampdown totally, think that the inevitable action came too late in the day. CBI’s own senior officers have inflicted a huge damage to the agency, leaving other officers wondering how to salvage a situation where the country’s premier anti-corruption agency has come to be seen as completely corrupt. Those who opposed any harsh action by government on a so-called independent institution like CBI, think that under Narendra Modi’s watch the institution further lost its remaining credibility, for which the Prime Minister’s Office cannot escape blame.
However, the government thinks after the sweeping action, its “control over the CBI” will be better than before.
The three-bench Supreme Court judgement of 26 October, which heard the petitions against the government’s midnight action, has brought some relief to the PMO in its damage control exercise. The judges didn’t make any comments or pass any strictures against the government for sending the CBI chief on leave. The CBI chief enjoys a fixed two-year term, due to the Vineet Narayan judgement in the hawala case. The government took a legal risk at some moral cost. But the Supreme Court did not react instantly on the legal validity of the director’s removal. In the fight between Verma and Asthana, it was clear that Asthana enjoyed larger support of the establishment. When Verma was sent on leave, essentially, it was done to buy time as he retires in January.
The midnight action could have exploded in the government’s face, but the Supreme Court saved the day for it. It didn’t hear Verma’s lawyer Fali Nariman’s plea to weigh the unprecedented decision of sending Verma on leave in view of the Vineet Narayan judgement. The Supreme Court also did not heed the voice of anti-government forces, including Prashant Bhushan, who tried to paint the “CBI versus CBI” fight as a fight between “honest Verma” and “corrupt Asthana”. The judgement of 26 October has allowed the Chief Vigilance Commission to inquire into the charges against Verma inside two weeks, under the supervision of noted jurist and retired judge, A.K. Patnaik. This virtually means that the Supreme Court has put Verma, and to some extent the office of the CVC, under Patnaik’s watch.
In the unfolding event, Asthana, who was pushed to the wall because of the FIR filed by his own organisation under Verma’s instruction, has got the space to turn the tables on Verma.
The climax of the Verma-Asthana fight will unfold in the coming 20 days. Verma will have to steadfastly see that the FIR filed against Asthana does not lose steam; while Asthana will ensure, behind the scenes, that enough evidence is presented to the CVC against Verma. Sources claim that Asthana has done his homework as his stakes are high. He wants to succeed Verma as CBI director, but his path to the post has become rocky because of the ugly spat, which has not only damaged the CBI, but also Asthana himself because of the allegations against him and the FIR.
SWAMY VS JAITLEY
Another important fallout of the CBI battle is that overnight the fierce political fight between Subramanian Swamy and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is witnessing new contours. In the Swamy versus Jaitley fight, Swamy enjoyed the upper hand for long because he was using Twitter brazenly against his rivals and mostly against the Finance Minister. In spite of Jaitley’s strong opposition, Swamy even managed to become a member of the Rajya Sabha and got high level security and a government bungalow on Pandara Road.
Behind the current explosion in the CBI is the political battle of two poles—the two axes—within the Modi establishment and the “two armies” within the investigating agency.
No bureaucracy can have an upper hand vis-à-vis the political class if it does not develop an axis within. It’s a known fact that in the Verma versus Asthana battle, the real players were Rajeshwar Singh, Joint Director of Enforcement Directorate, and Arun Kumar Sharma, Joint Director (Policy) in the CBI.
Rajeshwar Singh and his boss until 26 October, Karnal Singh, have had many common causes with Alok Verma for the last 12 to 14 months. They worked in tandem. The big surprising addition to the axis was CBI’s Arun Kumar Sharma, a Gujarat cadre officer, who worked closely with both PM Modi when the latter was Chief Minister of Gujarat, and with Amit Shah when the BJP president was Minister of State for Home in Gujarat. It’s a big political puzzle how the officer who was so close to the Modi-Shah duo is now working day and night to fight Alok Verma’s battle, to ensure that Asthana is not made the CBI chief early next year.
Verma and Rajeshwar Singh have the support of BJP’s vocal leader, Subramanian Swamy, who defended the formidable axis of Verma-Singh-Sharma, tooth and nail, in the public sphere. In this Swamy used Twitter to support Rajeshwar Singh and Verma unambiguously. However, because of the action against Verma, this powerful axis now stands broken, and after a long time Arun Jaitley is getting his mojo back. That this powerful axis could be broken, was because another axis, which is backing Asthana and is working under PM Modi’s nose, got into action.
Asthana had the trust of P.K. Mishra, Additional Principal Secretary in the PMO. Also, Finance Secretary Hasmukh Adhia had enough reason to take a stand against Rajeshwar Singh, who was gunning for both Adhia and Asthana. Because Asthana had P.K. Mishra’s backing, sources claim Verma’s camp was discreetly collecting information on Mishra and it is possible that some controversy may be broken that could shake the bureaucracy.
The battle-lines were drawn clearly in the Swamy-Jaitley fight. Jaitley supported Adhia, Swamy opposed Adhia. Jaitley wanted tough action against certain ED officers, but Swamy supported these officers.
Jaitley took many punches from Swamy in Twitter-land. But things changed with the siege of the CBI at midnight. But the siege angered Swamy to no end because he knew that now the government would go after all the members of the power axis that he was supporting publicly.
The action against CBI infighting came just two days before Karnal Singh, an important member of the power axis supported by Swamy, was set to retire. Also, in the last few days, due to the push by Adhia, an inquiry has been initiated against Rajeshwar Singh. In July 2018, Rajeshwar Singh had written a scathing letter to Adhia, levelling sensational charges against him and narrating in detail how Singh’s promotion to Additional Director (of ED) post had been stalled. Amongst the many serious allegations Singh made, he claimed that corporate fixer Upendra Rai had an influence in the decision-making process. Later, Singh tried to mend fences with Adhia, but it did not work and Adhia continues to be furious with Singh.
Now that Karnal Singh is retiring and Sanjay Kumar Mishra, an IRS cadre officer and a batch-mate of Asthana, is taking over as ED’s interim director, Rajeshwar Singh is likely to go on long leave.
More than a dozen sensitive cases investigated by ED will come in the hands of new chief Mishra, which will strengthen the Adhia-P.K. Mishra-Asthana axis.
In view of this likely development inside ED, Swamy’s anger became public when he told the media after the midnight action on CBI, “In today’s situation, ED officer Rajeshwar, if he is removed, then I will come to the conclusion that a conspiracy is going on to save Chidambaram. There are many well-wishers of Chidambaram in our party who are trying to save him.”
But to probably blunt Swamy’s charge, on his last working day, Karnal Singh filed a supplementary charge-sheet in the Aircel-Maxis case and named former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram as an accused.
Swamy’s ire was intense when he threatened that “I will withdraw myself from all the cases filed against Chidambaram in the Supreme Court, cases filed against Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in Patiala House (lower court) in the National Herald case and the case against Shashi Tharoor in the (allegations of) murder of his wife.”
However, one should also give credit to Swamy for playing politics with a straight bat as his stance is on record on Twitter.
VERMA VS ASTHANA
In this multi-layered confrontation, the argument being made by the Congress and many others is that the government went for the midnight action because Verma would have acted against it in the Rafale case. The submission of a Rafale dossier by Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan could have been an added weapon in Verma’s hands, but after the recent changes in the anti-corruption law, Verma could not have gone beyond making headlines to embarrass PM Modi. He was anyway running against time and could not have done anything substantive on the Rafale front.
More importantly, Verma knows ways to work his way up, as most secretaries in Government of India do. CBI insiders claim that neither is Verma impulsive nor apolitical. He has fine-tuned his relations with a few saffron leaders, including an office bearer of the BJP. He had recently lobbied with this leader to get his help in posting his favourite officer in the CBI. In fact, Verma got the most coveted posting in the CBI as director, in spite of opposition from Congress and activists like Prashant Bhushan, because he managed to get the support of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
But then Verma could not run his office well because from the very first day he was in the confrontational mode. The fight between Verma and Asthana started over petty issues and then blew up to become an ego battle, and went to the extent where Verma tried to ensure that Asthana would not be able to succeed him. Both used their own pet officers to investigate “corruption cases” against each other, including their alleged involvements with some of the CBI’s prime accused.
Verma and Asthana had an awkward moment on the day Verma took over as CBI director in 2017. Asthana was acting as interim director at the time. But his nomination as director was challenged in court. Asthana took a little time in vacating the posh office of the CBI director, which offended Verma.
The next day Verma discarded N.M. Sinha, the Officer on Special Duty in his office, thinking he was Asthana’s man. Verma was obsessed with the fact that Asthana had a Gujarat background and was perceived to be close to the PMO. Verma, who belonged to the Union Territory cadre, did not have any experience of working in the CBI. This added to Verma’s insecurity. That Asthana was known for his efficiency, even though allegations of corruption were there against him, made Verma more insecure. Verma wanted his own men in the CBI, so he tried to bring in two Delhi Police officers who were close to him when he was Police Commissioner of Delhi. Sai Manohar, who was Joint Director (Policy) in CBI, was asked to prepare the reports of these two officers. Manohar gave negative reports. After this, Verma transferred Manohar and brought in Arun Kumar Sharma, the man perceived to be close to both Modi and Shah, as Joint Director (Policy). Insiders claim that Verma’s “marriage of convenience” was aimed at getting on the right side of Amit Shah. But things didn’t work logically.
To keep Asthana under pressure, Verma activated the case against Gujarat-based Nitin Sandesara of Sterlite Biotech. Sandesara was known to Asthana since the latter’s posting in Vadodara as Police Commissioner.
In a counter move, Asthana tried to activate the case of meat exporter Moin Qureshi. Verma and Qureshi have known each other since their college days in Delhi. Within CBI the perception was that Verma would not act against Qureshi decisively.
Verma tried to fix Asthana where it would hurt him. Sandesara, who is known to the top leadership of the BJP, Congress and Shiv Sena, and almost all the top officers of the Gujarat IPS and IAS cadre, was Asthana’s soft nerve. Sandesara has huge investments in oil and gas in Nigeria. The bachelor understands money and power, both.
Soon into his job, Verma got frustrated to see that the case against Sandesara was not moving at the speed he wanted it to. Sunil Dutt, the investigating officer was going by the rule book. So Verma got officers such as Rakesh Rathi, Umesh Dutta and S.S. Gurum involved at various levels, but still progress remained slow.
Thus, the two cases of Moin Qureshi and Sandesara became the playground where the Verma versus Asthana battle started to get fought.
Eventually, two armies came to be formed within the CBI.
On Verma’s side were M. Nageshwar Rao (currently in charge of CBI), Rajiv Singh (Joint Director-Administration), Bhanu Bhaskar Singh, A.K. Sharma (Joint Director, Policy), Anish Prasad (Deputy Director, Administration), Vineet Vinayak, DIG Manish Kumar Singh (Anti-Corruption Zone III), etc.
Asthana had the support of Sai Manohar (Joint Director, SIT), Praveen Sinha, DIG Ashwani Chand, SP Jagroop Meena, SP Sudhanshu Khare, Gagandeep Gambhir (Special Unit), SP Pranav Kumar, etc.
Verma once told an officer that, “Modi can bring you into the CBI, but posting is my territory.”
Verma wanted complete control and minimum influence of Asthana, but Kayasth officers within the agency and old hands in CBI knew Asthana well as he has served in the organisation.
The power balance between the two got tense, especially when Verma shifted out Asthana’s men from the CBI headquarters. When Verma levelled allegations against Asthana in the Sandesara case, Asthana requested that he should be allowed to present his case, but he was not allowed to do so. A.K. Sharma, Manish Sinha and Anish Prasad helped Verma loyally to build the case against Asthana.
Such was the situation that a raid was about to take place in the office of Nirbhaya Kumar, one of Asthana’s men in the CBI headquarters, on Verma’s order, in September 2018, but was averted at the last minute.
Eventually, the politicisation of the CBI became so complete that everyone started snooping on everyone else.
The question is: What happens to cases against Vijay Mallya, Nitin Sandesara, Robert Vadra, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi now?