A case of exploding egos
The Verma-Asthana conundrum created a ruckus in the nation’s top investigation agency – leading to an ugly feud and public scrutiny
'Even if you burst with indignation, they will still carry on.' Nothing but this apt statement from Marcus Aurelius's magnum opus Mediations could have underlined the current hullabaloo that has caught nation's attention by collar towards the smouldering fire that has been tormenting India's topmost investigating agency. Since August 2018, when the tug of war between CBI's Special director and number two in the hierarchy Rakesh Asthana, a 1984-batch Gujarat-cadre IPS and the 1979-batch UT-cadre IPS officer and then CBI director Alok Verma is out in the open, the credentials of CBI have become a matter of public scrutiny.
This is a case of exploding egos, a phenomenon of a bureaucratic tussle of power, a power brute – absolute in nature and political in its essence. While the nation gawks at this unprecedented turn of events at the highest level of bureaucracy and this conundrum within the CBI calls for a dispassionate and non-partisan assessment of the players involved and their respective views, it is a million-dollar question whether the Director of CBI has a 'near Constitutional status'? The answer will always be a big 'No' as he is just merely in the top 10 or 20 bureaucrats of India. And, whatever be the interpretation of his status in the court-rooms or what the political parties want to project as CBI Director's stricture in a larger-than-life image, it is an equation like that of any other bureaucrat – CBI Director can also be appointed and removed by the government. The three-member Selection Committee only has the recommending capacity, nothing more than that.
The seeds of discord were sown ever since Verma was appointed as the CBI chief. The joint parliamentary committee comprising of the PM, Leader of Opposition and the CJI was not unanimous about bringing Alok Verma as the CBI chief. Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of Opposition and senior Congress leader, had his own share of reservations but the fact that the then CJI Justice Khehar made such a strong pitch in favour of Verma, that it eventually sealed the deal in his favour. An IPS with an undistinguished career, Verma was known for his warm relations in and around 10, Janpath, and was cordial towards a certain section of political establishment all through his tenure in Delhi. Later, when the Modi government decided to bring in Rakesh Asthana, an IPS of impeccable credentials known for his historic role in convicting Lalu Prasad in the Bihar Fodder Scam case, even the adversaries sworn by his incorruptible demeanours. A thorough professional, Asthana is known for his no-nonsense attitude when it comes to cracking corruption cases. Considered to be a favourite of Modi given the rapport he shares with Modi during his chief ministerial reign in Gujarat, Asthana was widely accepted as the number two in CBI, someone whose anointment as the CBI director looked almost on cards. Given the fact that he enjoyed certain clout and respectability in the echelons of CBI, ominous signs of friction between him and Verma were visible right from the outset. It was more about a clash of egos than the mudslinging which later became the norm of the fight.
Senior officials' reflections and subsequent media reports regarding the loss of confidence between the top two senior-most officials convey the fact that Asthana's no-nonsense attitude towards following up the corruption cases related to some political heavyweights of the country did not go well with the lackadaisical stance Verma always had. This later spiralled into a gross loss of confidence between the two. When Asthana had finally run out of patience, he had no option but to come out in open.
When Asthana came out in the open, alleging the then CBI chief of indulging in creating disturbances during the ongoing raids related to some of the high-profile corruption cases, his letter to the CVC alleging Verma of the corruption charges were directed through proper bureaucratic channel i.e., through the Cabinet Secretary. Alok Verma enjoyed significant political clout within the environs of Lutyen's corridor and there is little to wonder about the fact that he pounced upon Verma with vengeance.
In due course of the time, Verma framed serious corruption allegations upon Rakesh Asthana, charging him of bribery and subsequently deviating the course of investigation in major corruption cases. The two bigwigs of CBI were there to battle it out in the open, their own coterie of bureaucratic heavyweights rallying behind them. The media, hypersensitive and shallow in its investigative rationale as always, was quick to feed upon this salivating piece of news, where two senior bureaucrats, part of the highest bureaucratic agency, were ready to politicise the issue. The opposition, especially Congress, was quick to score political brownie points out of this unfortunate incident and suddenly Alok Verma had become this blue-eyed boy of the opposition, who, they projected, was being subject to a certain kind of political dictatorship. Congress was quick to jump on to the popular bandwagon of shrill cries of CBI being used as a stooge of political power. Projecting Asthana as a long-time culprit, someone who had misused his power as the CBI chief in letting go of a Hyderabad-based businessman in exchange of 5 crore rupees, the opposition did not let go of any chance to expose Asthana's closeness with Modi. The episode took a murky political turn where the opposition party came all out to taint the image of an upright officer. The FIR, which Verma lodged against Asthana, is still a matter of judicial scrutiny. But as far as the political underpinnings of this entire feud within CBI are concerned, there is a history to it and it must be examined at any cost.
An ugly feud related to the power tussle between the two senior CBI officials, where the role of Central government has also come under the scanner - this is not new to our political history. Congress and its spokespersons who are going hoarse about this feud and the aforesaid political subjugation of CBI must remember the regime of Rajiv Gandhi, where a similar episode had happened.
In the wake of the Bofors scandal which had shaken Congress, C M Radhakrishnan Nair, a 1954-batch Kerela-cadre IPS who was slated to be the next CBI chief had to face similar political wrath which Asthana is being subject to. In place of Nair, the then Congress government under Rajeev Gandhi had given Mohan Khatre, a Maharashtra-cadre IPS who was then the CBI chief, an extended run of a year. The very fact that the impeccable credentials of Nair could have left the government red-faced in case he decided to pursue the Bofors case according to his style, played a crucial role in the number two being subject to political pressure.
In the wake of recent Rafale deal, the strict and no-nonsense investigative style of Asthana could have exposed many political acts of snobbery, which could have derailed the narrative which the opposition is constantly trying to build around the Rafale deal. Nothing could have been a more-timely ruckus than the one which has been created in the CBI, thanks to the explosion of egos between two senior officials. However, the very fact that Verma is being christened as 'Oh So Unlucky' chap who was subjected to political control is only half-reading of the story. Much lies beyond the headlines, and perhaps in the head and heart of Asthana, who it seems is sharing the same destiny of C M Radhakrishna Nair. There is always a price of being upright and honest, ignominy; it seems is the one which Asthana is going to pay.
(The author is a senior journalist. The views expressed are strictly personal)