Who are the two officers at the centre of the ongoing battle within the CBI?
CBI Director Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana. Until this unprecedented showdown, both had long and uncontroversial careers. Verma joined the IPS in 1979 at age 22 and was allotted to the AGMUT (Arunachal, Goa, Mizoram, UTs) cadre. He was the youngest officer in his batch. Prior to assuming the office of CBI Director, Verma had been Commissioner of Police, Delhi; Director General of Prisons, Delhi; Director General of Police, Mizoram; DGP, Puducherry and IGP, Andaman & Nicobar Islands. He is the only CBI Director to hold the top post without any prior experience in the agency.
Asthana, a 1984 batch IPS officer of the Gujarat cadre, has investigated many important cases, including the fodder scam case (during an earlier stint in the CBI) and the 2002 Godhra train burning when he was Inspector General in charge of Vadodara Range. His investigation into the fodder scam is regarded as key to the case resulting in the conviction of RJD chief Lalu Prasad. He is widely seen as being close to the current ruling dispensation.
How are officers at these levels appointed?
Before the Lokpal Act was enacted, the CBI Director’s appointment was done under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act. Under the Act, the mandate to prepare a list of eligible candidates rested with a panel comprising the Central Vigilance Commissioner as chairperson, other vigilance commissioners, Home Secretary and Secretary (Coordination and Public Grievances in the Cabinet Secretariat). Their recommendations would be vetted by senior government functionaries and the final decision would be taken following consultations between the PMO and Home Ministry.
Following the enactment of the Lokpal Act, the responsibility of preparing the first list of officers has been vested with the Home Ministry. Under the new process, the list is prepared by the Ministry on the basis of seniority and experience in anti-corruption investigations. This list goes to the Department of Personnel and Training, which vets it further for seniority, integrity and investigation experience. The list then goes to the Lokpal Search Committee, comprising the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India and the Leader of the Opposition. In case the CJI is not available, he can depute a representative. If no party in Opposition is large enough to get the position of Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the largest Opposition party can attend. The search committee examines the names and sends its recommendation to the government. The decision of the committee could be unanimous or divided with a member recording a note of dissent.
The government appoints other subordinate officers in the CBI on deputation, in consultation with the CVC after due vetting of integrity and seniority at different posts. There is no official No. 2 in the agency — it is informally decided on the basis of seniority. The Director remains the ultimate authority, and no other officer has any independent powers that can bypass his. The Director has the prerogative to assign investigation of a case to an officer. His is also the final call on the action to be taken in a case.
What is the genesis of the current crisis?
It traces its origins to events of mid-2017, when the government refused to appoint certain IPS officers into the CBI despite recommendations from the CBI Director. In October 2017, the CBI Director handed over a confidential note to the CVC during a panel meeting over the promotion of Asthana to the post of Special Director. The note alleged corruption on Asthana’s part with regard to the Sterling Biotech case of August that year. It alleged that according to a diary found on the premises of the company, Asthana was paid Rs 3.88 crore by the company (which in October came under probe for loan defaults of over Rs 5,000 crore). The CVC panel unanimously cleared Asthana’s promotion, disregarding Verma’s submissions. It said the allegations were not verifiable.
In June this year, the Director targeted Asthana again, now through a letter to the CVC that said that Asthana could not represent him in his absence in a CVC meeting over CBI appointments. The Director said Asthana was being probed for alleged corruption. Asthana hit back by writing to the Cabinet Secretary in August that Verma was interfering in his probes and had tried to stall a raid on Lalu Prasad in the IRCTC case. He also alleged corruption on Verma’s part. Less than two months later, Verma got an FIR registered against Asthana as an accused in a case of corruption.
What has Asthana been accused of?
Asthana is alleged to have demanded a bribe of Rs 5 crore from a Hyderabad-based businessman through two middlemen to help him get off the hook in the Moin Qureshi case. CBI has alleged that at least Rs 3 crore had already been paid to Asthana through the middlemen. The agency has claimed that it has evidence, through WhatsApp chats between the middlemen and the businessman, of bribes having been paid. But the businessman seems to have never met or spoken to Asthana. According to the CBI FIR, when a middleman offered to arrange a meeting in Dubai, the businessman refused.
Did Director Verma need sanction before the FIR against Asthana was filed?
CBI has argued that since this was a case of bribery and not of abuse of official position in connection with a decision taken on policy or otherwise, this would not fall under the purview of Section 17A of the recently amended Prevention of Corruption Act. This, however, is being disputed by many.
Section 17A says, “No police officer shall conduct any enquiry or inquiry or investigation into any offence alleged to have been committed by a public servant…, where the alleged offence is relatable to… (the) discharge of his official functions or duties, without the previous approval… of the government. …No such approval shall be necessary for cases involving arrest… on the spot on the charge of accepting or attempting to accept any undue advantage…”
It is being argued that since in the case against Asthana, no one was caught accepting a bribe “on the spot”, the agency should have taken permission from the government before charging him.
How should the ongoing ‘war’ in the CBI be perceived — as an ego/turf battle between two senior officers, or as a tussle between two ‘camps’?
What began as a turf battle between the two seniormost officers has now cleaved the agency, with other officers too, taking sides. The team under Asthana has remained loyal to its boss while several others have chosen to align themselves with Verma. But a large number of officers have chosen to remain neutral as well, given the continuing suspense over which way the tide would turn.