The PMO has let the CBI bickering fester for far too long, damaging the apex probe agency’s credibility and making the mythical deep state seem credible
If the landmark Vineet Narain judgment of the Supreme Court in the 1997 Jain hawala case is anything to go by, then it built enough jurisprudence to insulate the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) from political interference and even made it impossible for politicians in the government to remove the CBI director for two years, ensuring he had freedom to carry out time-bound investigations. What happened on the ground after this judgment was that the CBI, which had worked under the Home Ministry earlier, was brought under the direct control of the Prime Minister’s Office. The agency now works under the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) which reports directly to the PMO. In that sense, this esteemed office is quite aware of the CBI’s functioning and could access information if it wanted to. This was evident during the coal scam investigations when PMO officials were caught vetting sealed CBI reports meant for the Supreme Court, which forced the judges to describe the apex agency as a “caged parrot.” From my 11-year experience as a journalist and having followed CBI’s involvement in the 2G scam, I must say Prime Minister Narendra Modi couldn’t exert overarching control over it or stem the tide of misuse.
When Modi came to power in May 2014, the then CBI Director Ranjit Sinha had the most tainted record but was in the saddle serving out his term. He was appointed on the recommendation of the then RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav. Such was his reputation that the Patna High Court even disqualified him from the fodder scam probe in the mid-1990s. Frankly, till his retirement in December 2014, Modi took no action against Ranjit Sinha, who even appointed an IRS officer as DIG in the CBI’s anti-corruption wing in Delhi during the power transition in May 2014. This officer was caught for torturing a civil servant working in the Ministry of Corporate Affairs for taking a bribe and forcing him and his entire family to commit suicide. The concerned IRS officer, Sanjiv Gautam, was then a private Secretary to a powerful UPA Minister and it is a million dollar question how Sinha took him as DIG in the CBI just days before Modi became the Prime Minister. But then the Indian bureaucracy is known to play smart with appointments during power transitions, keeping them absolutely legitimate and within rules.
Sinha was even called out by Supreme Court’s 2G and coal scam benches for meeting many of the accused, including corporates, at his home and was under the scanner of a court-dictated probe. This was a golden chance for Modi to act, cleanse the country’s top probe agency once and for all and get a transparent process going. But the Prime Minister remained silent, one which unfortunately amounted to being a safe passage for Sinha. Why? None has an answer.
The next CBI Director was selected in December 2014, as per the Lokpal Act, by a high-powered committee comprising the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India and the Opposition Leader in the Lok Sabha. The Prime Minister selected Ranjit Sinha’s protégé Anil Sinha as per existing seniority norms, a decision agreed to by the other members on the panel. Till December 2016, Anil Sinha dragged his feet on major corruption scandals like Aircel-Maxis, AgustaWestland, Robert Vadra’s land acquisitions and the National Herald-related cases, which were major campaign planks of the BJP when it was in the Opposition.
His tenure was marked by controversial raids at two sitting Chief Ministers’ offices, namely Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kerjiwal and Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Vir Bhadra Singh. In both instances, the Prime Minister was not in Delhi, travelling abroad during one and addressing naval officers on a warship in the high seas during the other. Had the CBI Director got clearance from the Prime Minister to conduct the raid in sitting Chief Ministers’ offices? Or did someone in the Cabinet direct him to do so once the Prime Minister was out of reach?
Anil Sinha even shunted a CBI Joint Director Ashok Tewari for summoning former Finance Minister P Chidambaram in December 2014 with regard to the Aircel-Maxis scam. How can an officer be shunted out for doing his duty? Have we then become the mythical “deep state?” That is the only answer.
In fact, proof that Modi was aware of the CBI’s wrongdoings lies in the fact that he himself brought Gujarat cadre IPS officers, namely Rakesh Asthana, YC Modi and AK Sharma.
Even Enforcement Directorate’s young officer Rajeshwar Singh was hounded by the system for raiding Chidambaram’s home in December 2015 and exposing his family’s assets in 14 countries and 21 foreign bank accounts. One would have expected Ashok Tewari and Rajeshwar Singh to be heroes in the Modi regime for taking bold action against his political rival Chidambaram. But the underbelly of Lutyens’ Delhi is difficult to grasp.
I must bring out two incidents of CBI’s sheer lethargy and tardiness for political “give and take.” The first concerns a trial court judge overseeing the coal scam cases, Bharat Prashar, who summoned former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, holding him responsible for allocation of coal mines. The Congress even conducted a protest march against this. Meanwhile, Singh approached a non-relevant Supreme Court Bench and obtained a stay on the summons when he should have ideally sought redress in the Coal Scam Bench. It was CBI’s duty to tell the court about this anomaly. However, it kept quiet and the trial court convicted poor Harish Chandra Gupta, then Coal Secretary, who was also not inclined to reveal the truth and became an approver. The endgame? Both the IAS lobby and politicians shed crocodile tears for a while, leading to recasting of the Prevention of Corruption Act. The CBI was rendered toothless. Again. The second case that emasculated the CBI further was the Delhi High Court staying the prosecution of Sonia Gandhi’s former private secretary Vincent George in January 2015. Till date, the CBI has not challenged this decision in the Supreme Court, though the Delhi High Court has terminated the magistrate son of the concerned High Court judge, who was caught for possessing unaccounted cash.
Now let us come to the current controversy. After the exit of Anil Sinha, Modi used his might, bypassed the next senior candidate RK Dutta and appointed trusted lieutenant Rakesh Asthana as CBI’s Acting Director in December 2016. Asthana was too junior to hold the post of CBI chief and later, the
Prime Minister himself selected non-controversial Delhi Police Commissioner Alok Verma as the new Director in January 2017. He had selected him as Delhi Police Commissioner, too, in 2015.
However, post the appointments Modi perhaps could not sense the duel that had started between his trusted officers in the CBI. Rakesh Asthana, YC Modi and AK Sharma had already started bickering with each other and PMO officials reportedly took sides in this mud-slinging instead of sorting out issues. Meanwhile YC Modi was shunted out to the National Investigative Agency (NIA). The tussle continued as Asthana was not at all in a mood to obey the new CBI Director, who decided to take on Asthana by fixing the latter’s culpability in the Sterling Diary bribes. This time, Central Vigilance Commissioner KV Chowdhary looked the other way. And the PMO, in an unprecedented manner, issued a midnight order approving the promotion of Rakesh Asthana as Special Director in October 2017. This was the real breaking point between the CBI Director and his real superior, the Prime Minister. Now that the Supreme Court is seized of the matter, let us wait for its verdict.
Will the Supreme Court deliver the judgment before the retirement of Alok Verma on February 2? If justice is delayed, then it would give credence to what is generally assumed, that bigwigs protect each other and no matter what the regime, the bureaucracy’s shenanigans can always hold a system hostage to its priorities and ego. There is a famous Latin judicial term, “Fiat justitia ruat caelum, which means “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”
(The writer is Special Correspondent of The Pioneer)