CBI infighting out in open, investigative agency says its No 2 under scanner
The country’s top federal investigation agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Friday took the unprecedented measure of issuing a statement saying it is probing the role of its own special director Rakesh Asthana, the senior-most officer after the chief Alok Verma, “in at least half a dozen cases”. The agency also accused Asthana of making frivolous and baseless complaints against his boss to the government.
The statement, which finally acknowledges one of New Delhi’s worst kept secrets – the poor relationship between Verma and the man he thought had been foisted on him to create a parallel power centre in the agency, Asthana, and the way this is affecting investigations – came following a complaint by Asthana to cabinet secretary Pradeep Kumar Sinha alleging that Verma was interfering in investigations.
It brings to the fore an ugly fight in the agency that, experts say, is threatening to tarnish its credibility.
CBI has not given any detail of the cases in which it is investigating Asthana, nor has it clarified whether a prior sanction was sought to probe Asthana in these cases as mandated by law.
Meanwhile, the cabinet secretary has referred the complaint made by Asthana to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), a senior government functionary confirmed on condition of anonymity. A person familiar with the developments said the CVC would take up the matter on Monday.
The CBI termed Asthana’s complaint as an attempt to intimidate those CBI officers probing him.
“It is stated that CVC has sought for certain case files from CBI on the basis of a complaint filed by the Special Director, CBI (Asthana). In its response to the CVC letter, the chief vigilance officer of CBI has pointed out that the complaint is an attempt by the complainant to intimidate the officers of CBI who are investigating his role in at least half a dozen cases,” the CBI statement said.
Verma and Asthana were not available for comment.
The agency in its statement said it is unfortunate that “baseless and frivolous allegations” were being made publically “without proper verification of facts to malign the image of the Director CBI and intimidate the officials of the organisation”.
Asthana is learnt to have made a serious charge in his complaint to the cabinet secretary in September that the director tried to delay the investigation of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) case. Former railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav is one of the accused in the case.
Defending the director against Asthana’s charge, CBI said it was absolutely false and pointed out that a charge sheet has been filed in the case and that this could not have happened without the explicit approval of director Verma.
The senior government functionary mentioned in the first instance said even the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is dismayed at the fight between Asthana and Verma and that a message has been conveyed to both of them to back off.
“But it looks that both of them have reached at a point of no return,” this person added.
Interestingly, the tussle between Asthana and Verma comes at a time when the agency is slowly recovering from allegations of corruption against two of its former directors - AP Singh (2010-12) and Ranjit Singh (2012-14). The CBI itself is probing both cases.
“If there is little bit of truth in the reports (about the various issues between Verma and Asthana), it doesn’t augur well for the organisation and it impinges on its credibility in the eyes of general public,” said ML Sharma, former CBI special director who later became central information commissioner.
The genesis of the bickering between Verma and Asthana lies in the latter’s appointment.
In 2017, the director objected to Asthana’s appointment as special director in the agency by promoting him from the rank of additional director.
“Director Verma informed the CVC-led panel that Asthana was under probe in the Sterling Biotech case. But the CVC panel rejected the contention of Verma and recommended Asthana’s name for promotion, which the government immediately cleared,” said an official familiar with the probe who asked not to be named. That was in October 2017.
The official added that Asthana’s defence was that he had rented out one of his premises to a Sterling Biotech group company and that the property and the rent received were both duly declared in his annual returns to the government. The CBI is yet to clear Asthana in the case.
On the basis of this, Asthana’s promotion was challenged in the Supreme Court by activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan, but the top court refused to intervene in the matter and cleared his appointment in November 2017.
The next round of fighting started when agency joint director Rajiv Singh, a Tripura cadre IPS officer, was sent back to his parent state in May. He was heading the Bank Security and Fraud Unit of the agency entrusted with investigating several key cases, including diamond trader Nirav Modi’s. It was alleged by some officers close to Verma that Asthana had a role in his repatriation, a charge the latter has denied in private.
A few days later, Asthana was accused of leaking a draft probe report in the Aircel-Maxis case. Officials in the agency claimed that a discrete probe was on against Asthana.
A CBI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the status report Asthana is alleged to have leaked was “submitted to the Supreme Court in 2013 when Asthana was not even in CBI. He joined the agency three years later. Asthana wanted a formal denial of the media report in this regard from the agency but agency refused to issue any denial.”
Asthana then complained to the cabinet secretary in early September following which a CVC said it would institute a probe. Friday’s statement by CBI was a response to that.