By Prarthana Mitra
After a couple of arrests made in connection to the bribery case incriminating former CBI special director Rakesh Asthana, CBI chief Alok Verma was removed from his “protected” position early Wednesday morning. Nodding off on his ouster, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed M Nageshwar Rao as the acting director Tuesday night.
This unprecedented move follows a riveting internal crisis within the nation’s nodal investigative agency and a series of counter-allegations traded between CBI’s top two officials. It also underscores the level of damage this corruption case and others that the agency is investigating could prove for the government.
Here’s what happened
Verma’s ouster arrived at 2 AM in the wake of his request to arrest Asthana over bribery and extortion. had been handpicked for the position last year by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite severe criticism. Then there is the other matter of Verma’s interest in the controversial Rafale papers, which some say may have motivated this dismissal.
An official notice from the Department of Personnel and Training placed Verma on leave pending investigation, followed by an announcement later that day, appointing Joint Director M Nageshwar Rao as the interim director. Verma sought to take action against him as well but Chief Vigilance Commissioner K.V. Chowdhary turned his request down. Appointed by Modi, Chowdhary seems to have advised the government to oust Verma. Rao’s first decision since assuming position has been to transfer those investigating Asthana out of headquarters.
#NageshwarRao is an IPS officer from Odisha cadre, joined CBI as joint director, promoted to additional director this year. A chemistry post graduate from Osmania University, did his research in Madras IIT, before joining the IPS in 1986. #CBIvCBI @IndianExpress pic.twitter.com/GO4amkNGSG
— rahul tripathi (@rahultripathi) October 24, 2018
Who will investigate the Rafale fiasco?
Verma’s unprecedented suspension has sent shockwaves across political and bureaucratic circles. Appointed by a collegium of Supreme Court judges, Verma was supposed to resign after a two-year tenure that ends in January 2019.
The decision to remove him arrives at a time when Verma was preparing to launch a preliminary inquisition into BJP’s overpriced deal to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft from the French government, a majority of whose offset contracts is earmarked for Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence. The case is now the subject of a criminal complaint to the CBI filed by former BJP ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and lawyer Prashant Bhushan, and also a PIL in the Supreme Court. Verma’s ouster could prove instrumental in derailing the investigation of a scandal reportedly larger than Bofors.
Here’s the backdrop
The original case involved an investigation overseen by Asthana, into multiple counts of money laundering and corruption brought against meat exporter Moin Qureshi. Qureshi was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) in 2017 but was later granted bail. A probe into alleged tax evasion and money laundering began against him. Soon after, CBI Chief Alok Verma and Asthana started trading allegations of corruption against one another, and the Central Vigilance Commission took over the still ongoing case.
Earlier this week, Devender Kumar, a former investigating officer in the case, was arrested for alleged forgery in the recording of businessman Sathish Sana’s statement, a key witness in the case. Sana had previously claimed that Dubai-based investment banker Manoj Prasad coerced him to pay Rs 5 crore, on Asthana’s word, in exchange of relief from repeated summons and a clean chit. Following this revelation, the CBI registered an FIR against Asthana, with details of the money trail. The nodal investigative agency has also recovered texts and call data which prove that several calls were exchanged between Asthana, another senior official from a different intelligence agency and Manoj Prasad’s sister-in-law after Prasad’s arrest, possibly to learn more about the unfolding investigation.
Surprisingly enough, Asthana had already intimated the cabinet secretary in a letter dated August 24, detailing Sana’s relief-bribe of Rs 2 crore to CBI Chief Alok Verma (along with 10 other instances of similar bribery). The CBI later claimed that Kumar fabricated Sana’s statement “as an afterthought…to corroborate the baseless allegations made by Asthana against CBI director Alok Verma.”
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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