Originally Published 2018-10-24 06:00:00 Published on Oct 24, 2018
CBI the ‘caged parrot’ sings out of tune

Moin Akhtar Querishi a suave Delhi businessman, educated at The Doon School – India’s Eton and St Stephens College – India’s Oxford, was our largest meat exporter in the noughties. His has been an enduring legacy at the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – India’s premier investigation agency, which is regulated by an autonomous, statutory body, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), which in turn is administratively linked to the Prime Minister through a Minister of State in his office.

Querishi’s friendship and dealings with two previous Directors of the CBI – A.P.Singh and Ranjit Sinha tarred both in office. His shadow now looms over the power tussle between the Director, CBI– Alok Verma, an IPS officer of the Union Territories cadre and Rakesh Asthana, from the Gujarat cadre, his junior in the IPS by five years and a Special Director in the CBI.

It is tough to decide which of the two have a more compelling case. Alok Verma was selected for a two-year term starting February 2017, by a three-member committee, consisting of the Prime Minister, the leader of the largest party in the opposition and the Chief Justice of India. There could be no better endorsement of his professional credibility and acceptability.

Rakesh Asthana, unlike his boss, Alok Verma, likes to be in the public eye. Nothing wrong with that per se. The upside is that he is credited with several high profile investigations, including into the fodder scam, in which Lalu Prasad Yadav was indicted.

When the time came for him to be promoted to Special Director in October 2017, unexpectedly, his boss wrote confidentially to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) – the body which verifies and endorses the integrity of senior officers prior to appointment or promotion – that Asthana was being probed for corruption charges. A link was inferred between Asthana and an FIR filed by the CBI on August 30, 2017, against Sterling Biotech and the Sandesara group. Apparently, diaries seized during raids mentioned payments made to someone who could be Asthana. But the FIR did not specifically mention Rakesh Asthana. Asthana’s son is said to work in the companies raided and favours were done by these companies during the wedding of Asthana’s daughter in Ahmedabad.

The CVC was not impressed by the evidence adduced and stuck to its policy of ignoring corruption allegations sent to it on the eve of selections. Casting slurs is a tactic, widely used to hold up public selections.

We cannot doubt the integrity of the CVC whilst supporting the appointment of Alok Verma. Nor can we cannot question the CVC’s clearance for Rakesh Asthana’s promotion. The matter could have ended there. Such matters do often end thus, with the boss eating humble pie in the face of an unstoppable junior. But this is Lutyens Delhi and there are many ways of skinning a cat.

One such is public interest litigation (PIL), an instrument encouraged by the Supreme Court to dispense justice against administrative failure or malfeasance causing irreparable harm to an individual. Holding the mighty accountable via PIL is a drudgery that eminent lawyers, with a yen for public service, do pro-bono. One such is the redoubtable Prashant Bhushan and an entity – Common Cause, founded by Arun Shourie’s activist father – the late Shri H.D. Shourie.

Asthana’s appointment was recommended by the selection committee headed by the CVC on October 21, 2017, and the very next day, October 22, 2017; it was approved by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. Simultaneously, a PIL was filed against the appointment by Common Cause.

The two-judge bench of the Supreme Court hearing the PIL was not impressed. Why they asked, had Astana not been named in the August 30, 2017, FIR if the link was obvious? Second, why did the CBI recommend Asthana for promotion a month before the FIR on July 6, 2017? Third, the bench noted that the CVC had taken cognisance of the Director CBI secret letter, as required under the Delhi Special Police Establishments Act 1946 – the legislation which regulates the CBI. This specifies consultation with the Director CBI prior to finalising its recommendations. The SC concurred in the assessment of the CVC and quashed the PIL on November 28, 2017.

Alok Verma was trying to do the impossible. He became Director in February 2017. Six months later in July 2017, the CBI, headed by him, recommended Asthana’s promotion. In August 2017 the CBI filed the FIR against Sterling Biotech. Why did the Director not recall Asthana’s name from the list for promotion? It is only two months later in October 2017 that the Director changed his views on Asthana’s suitability.

No one knows what happened between July and October 2017to have induced this change of heart. But there is a lesson there for bureaucrats who habitually sit on the fence. Sometimes they get left there by events.

On October 15, 2018, the CBI filed an FIR against its own Special Director, Rakesh Asthana alleging that in a case being investigated under his charge, against a businessman, Satish Sana, associated with the Querishi case, a bribe was demanded and paid to a Dubai based go-between. An indirect connection was alleged between Asthana and this go-between through an intelligence officer – allegedly from the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s premier overseas spook agency.  The first unequivocal red flag in this legal spaghetti would be if the court frames a charge sheet. But by that time Alok Verma would have retired in January 2019.

As matters stand, Alok Verma by his strategy of grand inaction succeeded in two things. He has probably succeeded in ensuring that Asthana will not become Director CBI in January 2019. Unfortunately, this “victory” comes at the expense of eroding whatever little remained of CBIs credibility.

Finally, who is to blame for this mess? Actually, everyone should be blamed. Officers merely serve at the will of the politicians elected to high executive positions.  Best to blame the people who elect them.  At least they can’t go in a PIL to clear their name.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sanjeev S. Ahluwalia has core skills in institutional analysis, energy and economic regulation and public financial management backed by eight years of project management experience ...

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