CBI's fumes reignited
On January 8, 2019, wearing the proud cloak of being on the right side of the Supreme Court verdict, Alok Verma resumed his position as CBI chief. After a 77-day leave, Verma came back to rescind the transfers sanctioned by the interim chief – confident that his decision does not violate SC's "cease and desist" order which abstains him from taking policy decisions. Securing the stay of loyal officers, Verma's second day in office after being reinstated became his last. A high profile committee headed by PM Narendra Modi, which included Opposition leader Mallikarjun Kharge and Justice A K Sikri, took the decision to oust Verma by a 2:1 majority – yet another instance of the Centre interfering with the anti-corruption agency's functioning. SC's order that restored Verma's position became redundant in less than 48 hours with the Centre's quick indifference. The committee took the decision in light of Verma not upholding the integrity of the institution as was expected of him. Clearly, Verma argued otherwise. But, the surprise was Kharge's dissent, who was the unsung ally of Verma here. According to government sources, Kharge argued that Verma should be given a fair opportunity to defend the charges against him before the committee prior to any decision. However, he was directed to submit a dissent note and the decision was nevertheless taken. In his six-page note, Kharge asked the government to "order an independent investigation into the veracity of facts…" that, if correct, "would establish the conspiracy at the highest levels of the Government with statutory authorities being found complicit." He added that "the entire exercise was in furtherance of a premeditated decision to remove Alok Verma as CBI Director, with reasons and processes being manufactured as an afterthought." Kharge argued how the presence of false/unsubstantiated charges should not be a precursor for Verma's ousting. However, all that went in vain as the committee announced its decision on Thursday evening. In his replacement, M Nageshwar Rao has been placed as the interim chief. A distraught Verma opened up on how CBI's independence should be preserved and protected. He asserted how it was important for CBI to function without external influences and that he had given his best to uphold the integrity of the institution, the very point which the selection committee held against him. Verma went to say that it was sad how he was transferred over the decision of the committee which was based on "false, unsubstantiated and frivolous allegations made by only one person, who was inimical to him". Discredited with corruption charges and shunted by the government, Verma will likely move to SC seeking redressal on grounds of CVC's biased approach towards him and denial of a hearing by the committee before ousting him.
The CBI drama just took a curious turn with these unfoldings as the investigating agency continues to be in the turmoil that can be traced back to when CBI number two – Special Director Rakesh Asthana – was appointed, despite Verma's objections, back on October 23, 2017. His appointment was duly challenged by Prashant Bhushan in SC on November 28, 2017, who had cited integrity issues. By then, even though it was evident that CBI's number one and two were not particularly fond of each other, there was no threat to the institution's functionality. And, then, on August 24, 2018, Asthana told CVC that Verma and his loyalists were involved in corruption cases. To Asthana's (and everyone's) surprise, an FIR was lodged by CBI against him and DSP Devender Kumar for bribery and corruption which led to the latter's arrest on October 22, 2018. By then, the CBI impasse had taken the national dailies by a storm and the entire country was watching its premier anti-corruption agency burning in controversy. To save its image, the Centre intervened and relieved both Asthana and Verma, placing M Nageshwar Rao as the interim boss. Clearly, the CBI vs CBI situation was too much for the nation who already had their cups filled with the Rafale controversy. It is unclear if Rafale was anywhere between this feud but judging the Centre's attempt to shunt its top cops and robustly intervene in matters does invite sceptical eyes. Finally, when SC decided to reinstate Verma, setting aside the Centre's decision to relieve him, Verma was unceremoniously ousted. The infighting sure had an anti-climax with Kharge arguing against Verma's sacking when he had earlier argued against his appointment back in 2016. As the drama settles in everyone's conscience, the need for Lokpal to make CBI an autonomous institution, free of external influences, still garners interest. After all, how can an agency precisely investigate itself and the government unless it is free of the latter's influence?