The Supreme Court removed Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director Ranjit Sinha Thursday from the 2G spectrum case, saying allegations that he had tried to influence the probe and helped some accused appeared 'credible'.
A bench headed by Chief Justice of India HL Dattu ordered the senior-most officer in the 2G investigating team to take over the case that involves politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats and had hugely embarrassed the previous central government.
"For us, it appears that all is not well and prima facie it seems that allegations made in the application (by NGO CPIL) has some credibility," the top court said, hearing a plea by Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL).
Sinha's humiliating ouster from the case, coming just 12 days before he retires from service, will render him a lame duck for the rest of his tenure.
More importantly, it does considerable damage to the credibility of India’s pre-eminent investigative agency. Only last year, Sinha was pushing for greater autonomy for the body, and more powers for himself.
Reacting to the order, Sinha said, "We will abide by the Supreme Court order."
“It’s not a blow. I am yet to get a copy of the court’s order, I am yet to see what the contents are.”
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), meanwhile, demanded Sinha's immediate sacking from the CBI chief's post and said he was "unfit" to head the country's premier investigative agency.
The party accused Sinha of maligning his own colleague after he named his subordinate as a "mole" who provided documents and file notings to AAP leader and CPIL advocate Prashant Bhushan.
But, government sources said there was unlikely to be action against the director given that his service was almost over, and the process to replace him was caught up in legal hurdles.
The law mandates a selection panel consisting of the Prime Minister, the CJI or his nominee and the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, a position that has not been granted to anyone yet.
“The government will study the court order before taking a view,” a source said.
The alleged interference of Sinha in the high-profile 2G case has triggered a storm of late, with lawyer-activist and AAP leader Bhushan requesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to remove the CBI chief.
According to Bhushan, Sinha had acted in "concert" with the accused to influence or derail the investigation and prosecution of the 2G and coal block cases.
Sinha is also under fire from two NGOs -- CPIL and Common Cause -- for allegedly holding private meetings at his residence with those facing CBI probes in the cases.
CPIL is a petitioner before the Supreme Court in the 2G spectrum case, while Common Cause had petitioned the top court in the coal scam case.
CPIL has accused the CBI chief of meeting 2G and coal scam accused at his residence and also trying to influence the course of investigations in the two cases. Sinha was overseeing the probe in the 2G case that is being monitored by the court.
The apex court's Thursday order came after senior public prosecutor Anand Grover told the bench the CBI chief had interfered in the case which was completely inconsistent with the agency's stand. “Our case in 2G could have been demolished, if Sinha's stand was accepted,” Grover said.
The court also recalled its September 15 order that had directed CPIL to disclose the name of whistleblower who had provided documents against Sinha.
The court, however, refused to pass an elaborate order on the matter, saying it would tarnish the CBI’s image and reputation.
Sinha’s counsel and senior advocate, Vikas Singh, argued the allegations against his client of scuttling the 2G probe were "untrue". But the submission of KK Venugopal, the senior counsel representing the CBI, compounded Sinha’s trouble.
Venugopal contradicted Sinha’s claim made in the court Wednesday that one of his senior officers -- DIG Santosh Rastogi -- was a mole. According to Sinha, it was the officer who had given file notings to Bhushan.
“If there is any evidence against the officer suspected by CBI director it must be produced before the court,” Venugopal said, and the court reprimanded Sinha for naming the officer. Speaking later to HT, Sinha tried to distance himself from his counsel’s act of naming Rastogi, saying: “I did not ask anybody to name anybody.”
Bhushan, too, denied having met Rastogi. “I have never met that official and did not get any document from him,” Bhushan told the court.
The CBI shifting Rastogi from the 2G probe was an overreach of its order, the court said. It also expressed its displeasure over the presence of eight CBI officers and directed them to leave and “do their duty”.
The officers trooped out immediately after the court’s comments. CBI additional director Rupak Kumar Dutta is likely to supervise the 2G scam probe from here on.
Bhushan, meanwhile, demanded that Sinha be ordered to stop supervising all cases, not just the 2G probe.
“He should be removed immediately. If he does not resign, the government should suspend him pending disciplinary proceedings,” he said.
“Special public prosecutor Anand Grover’s report is quite damning... it says Sinha tried to help the accused and destroy the case against them. This along with the entry register makes a very compelling case for his removal as CBI director.”
The 2G scam and other cases of corruption such as the coal scam badly damaged the Congress-led UPA government’s electoral prospects, setbacks from which the combine never recovered, losing power to Narendra Modi’s National Democratic Alliance in May.
A former telecom minister and a slew of corporate and government officials have been charged over the 2G scam, one of a string of corruption cases that rocked the previous central government.
The scam centred on the 2007-2008 sale of 2G mobile phone licences at cut-rate prices to favour some firms that the national auditor said cost the treasury billions of dollars in lost revenues.
The CBI took up the investigation again in 2013 after tapped phone calls came to light between a former corporate lobbyist, business executives and government bureaucrats over the sale.
The petition involving Sinha has heard that a whistleblower unearthed documents and a visitor's diary of Sinha's residence that allegedly showed the names of those who had visited him.
(with agency inputs)