SC reinstates Alok Verma as CBI chief: All you need to know

Setting aside the C decision to replace CBI chief Alok Verma with senior IPS officer M. Nageswara Rao overnight, the Supreme Court on Tuesday reinstated Verma as the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Two months after his ouster on corruption charges brought against him by his deputy, Verma returns to his post after a drawn-out battle with the country’s nodal investigation agency and the BJP-led central government.

However, the apex court did not address the investigation into and corruption charges against CBI’s second-in-command Rakesh Asthana, which had started the entire controversy.

Verma’s controversial ouster

In a midnight move in October 2018, the Narendra Modi government had sent Verma on an enforced leave following a public spat with his deputy and special CBI director Rakesh Asthana. Critics, RTI activists, and the opposition had called the timing suspect.

The court was hearing a petition filed by Verma, who alleged that his removal was unconstitutional, following which the court demanded explanations from the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). The regulatory body conducted an independent probe and submitted a sealed report to the court last month.

What happens now?

Reinstating Verma to his previous post, the top court bench on Tuesday asked for a committee comprising the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, and the chief justice of India to study the CVC probe against the exiled CBI chief. This high-powered panel, which selects and appoints the CBI chief, will decide his future at the agency.

The SC said there is no provision in law which permitted the government to divest the CBI director of his powers and functions without prior consent from the high-powered select committee. The court has directed this committee to take their decision based on the ongoing inquiry, within a week.

In the meantime, the court has directed Verma not to take a major policy decision until he is cleared of all corruption charges and the CVC probe is over. Verma’s two-year tenure as CBI chief ends on January 31.

Centre and opposition respond

Welcoming the ruling, Congress said that the court’s decision conveyed its disapproval of the C move to place Verma on leave. Narendra Modi is the first prime minister to have “his illegal orders set aside by the Supreme Court”, the Congress said on Tuesday. 

“The CBI chief was ousted at 1 am in the night because he was about to begin a probe into the Rafale deal. The CBI chief has been reinstated and we have got some relief. Now let’s see what happens,” said Congress President Rahul Gandhi, referring to India’s agreement with France to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets.

The decision to remove Verma had shocked politicians and bureaucrats alike as it coincided with his preparations to launch a preliminary inquisition into BJP’s overpriced deal, a majority of whose offset contracts are earmarked for Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence. The Supreme Court in December, however, cleared the deal after examining the decision-making process that went behind its iterations.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley accepted the court’s verdict but defended the government’s decision to remove both Verma and Asthana, denying it was politically motivated. “This action taken was perfectly bona fide as there were cross-allegations made by both the officers, and in accordance with recommendations of the CVC. The government felt that in the larger interest of fair and impartial investigation and credibility of CBI, the two officers must recuse themselves,” he said.

Here’s what led to this

The Centre had removed Verma and Asthana on October 23, 2018, after the duo bartered a series of allegations of corruption against each other which unfolded in public eye as a riveting internal crisis.

Shortly before this, Asthana had been taken off a high-profile money laundering case on charges of accepting bribes from some of the key witnesses. A chargesheet was also filed against him, after some of the middlemen involved in the transactions came forward.

Verma was removed from his “protected” position soon after the CBI made a couple of arrests in connection to the bribery case incriminating Asthana, who was later relieved as well.

What followed was an extensive and unprecedented reshuffle of CBI’s highest echelons on October 24 to manage the fallout that underscored the level of damage this corruption case (and others that the agency is investigating) could prove for the government.

The CBI is currently investigating several high profile cases, including a $2 billion fraud at Punjab National Bank involving fugitive diamond billionaire Nirav Modi, the AgustaWestland Chopper scam, the Rafale deal and loan defaults by liquor baron Vijay Mallya.

Asthana’s role

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, Verma and Asthana started trading allegations of corruption against one another, and the Central Vigilance Commission took over the still ongoing case.

On October 22, 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.

Verma’s ouster arrived at 2 am on October 23, in the wake of his request to arrest Asthana over bribery and extortion.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

Alok VermaCBISupreme Court of India