There is a fundamental flaw – both moral and procedural – in the way the committee headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi removed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director within 72 hours of his reinstatement by the Supreme Court.
Of course the Committee violated the principles of natural justice as it did not give Verma a hearing before summarily transferring him. That is only one part of the problem. The larger ethical-legal issue is the prime minister was presiding over a matter in which his office also stands accused. Shouldn’t Modi have also recused himself in the matter then? How can the prime minister sit in judgement in cases where his own office’s conduct has been called into question? It is here that the system must feel the absence of an independent Lok Pal under whom the CBI investigates cases where the prime minister or PMO stands accused.
After all, not only Alok Verma but other reputed senior CBI officers like M.K. Sinha and A.K. Sharma have cast aspersions on the PMO for subverting an impartial investigation in some important cases. Sinha, a competent and honest officer, headed the anti-corruption branch of the CBI and has named National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in the context of interference from the PMO in the bribery case filed against CBI special director Rakesh Asthana. More shockingly, Sinha has described the CBI as ‘Centre for Bogus Investigation’ and ED as ‘Extortion Directorate’ in his scathing affidavit submitted with the Supreme Court in the Alok Verma matter.
If the head of CBI’s anti-corruption branch – he was transferred after the midnight removal of Verma – describes the CBI and Enforcement Directorate in this way, it only points to something rotten in the PMO and the political establishment in general.
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So it was never a case of ‘CBI vs CBI’, as the bulk of the media made it out to be. It is so apparent that the PMO has been interfering regularly in the affairs of both the CBI and ED. What is not so well known is the war that had been going on between the ED and PMO officials. The head of the ED, Karnal Singh, who retired last year, had openly defied the PMO by defending an ED officer, Rajeshwar Singh, who was investigating many important cases of money laundering by businessmen and politicians.
The PMO had prepared an elaborate complaint against Rajeshwar around charges of corruption. But the ED head, also appointed by Modi, was stoutly defending Rajeshwar, a joint director. One doesn’t know whether the charges levelled by the PMO against Rajeshwar are true or not. But what one knows without any doubt is that Rajeshwar and the director of the ED were useful to the PMO up to a point, and then they became persona non grata.
The CBI too has seen similar patterns. Alok Verma was chosen by the PMO, more specifically by Ajit Doval, it is learnt. But suddenly Verma becomes inconvenient because he doesn’t toe the line. Similarly, another competent Gujarat cadre IPS officer, A.K.Sharma, was brought to the CBI by the PMO. But today, Sharma also stands marginalised because he worked well with Alok Verma.
Verma also became enemy because he was showing signs of independent thinking when it came to examining prima facie the complaint he received on the Rafale deal from Yashwant Sinha, Prashant Bhushan and Arun Shourie. Verma also has an ongoing case of corruption in coal allocation by Bhaskar Khulbe, an officer on special duty with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
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All this points to highly murky goings on at the highest level of the political establishment. Therefore, the Alok Verma issue was never so simple as merely ‘CBI vs CBI’. It was never a turf battle within the CBI. It was all flowing from the very top of the political establishment, which wanted to determine the course of many politically sensitive cases. The puppeteers were indeed sitting at the very top of the heap.
The PMO’s direct involvement in shaping the course of some alleged cases of political corruption and money laundering cannot be denied. It was this tension which manifested in the turf battles within the CBI and ED. This happened even in Gujarat, under chief minister Modi and home minister Amit Shah, when there was constant friction between IPS officers blindly committed to the political establishment and those who resisted violating constitutional procedures. The ‘Gujarat Model’ did not play out successfully in New Delhi because there are far more institutional checks and balances at the Centre. Modi and Shah possibly didn’t bargain for this.
There is no doubt that the institutional crises we are seeing in the investigation agencies is flowing from the very top. Which is why it is totally absurd that the prime minister should preside over the removal of CBI director Alok Verma. There can’t be a greater travesty of natural justice.