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Conflicting views on Gujarat case behind ugly CBI infighting?

The country’s top federal investigation agency, the 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”.

india Updated: Sep 24, 2018 13:13 IST
Rajesh Ahuja
Rajesh Ahuja
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
CBI,Rakesh Asthana,Gujarat
CBI special director Rakesh Asthana (pictured) had approached the government with a note saying the agency’s director Alok Verma was interfering in probes undertaken by him.(HT File Photo)

Behind the resumption of hostilities in the country’s top federal investigation agency, between its No 1 and No 2, is the belief of special director Rakesh Asthana that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) sleuths came across evidence that could have cleared his name in the Sandesara Group case but chose not to at the behest of director Alok Verma, people familiar with the matter said on the condition of anonymity.

Director Verma, who, other officials say, feels Asthana is not above board in the case, issued a statement last week through the agency’s official spokesperson that the special director was under probe in at least half-a-dozen cases being investigation by the agency. The CBI has also termed a complaint against director Verma sent by Asthana to the cabinet secretary on August 24 as “frivolous” and “baseless”.

Verma didn’t reply to a phone call and a text message seeking his comments. Asthana, too, did not reply to messages.

It was only last August that the CBI took over the Sandesara case. The agency registered an FIR against three Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officers on the basis of a diary that was recovered by the Income Tax Department in 2011 from the premises of the Sandesara group of companies of Gujarat.

The diary had details of payments made by the group in January and June 2011 to various people and companies.

The CBI in its FIR, which has been seen by HT, alleged that there were details of regular payments to three IRS officials and many others. The I-T department recommended that the CBI take up the case as these payments amounted to violation of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

The diary had entries against Asthana’s name too, although these didn’t figure in CBI’s complaint.

Before joining CBI in April 2016 on deputation, Asthana was serving in the Gujarat cadre. The diary listed a sum of ?40,000 a month being paid to Asthana as rent for an office the group had rented out from him in Gandhi Nagar. HT has seen relevant pages of the diary.

However, one of the people familiar with the matter, a CBI official, said this was above board.

“Asthana has a house in Gandhinagar which was rented out to the Sandesara group. But the rent received from the Sandesara group was duly reported by Asthana in his annual property details filed with the government,” added this person.

In addition, the diary mentioned entries against a certain RA, RA1, RA2, and RA3, totaling ?3.88 crore. These were seen as referencing payments to Asthana.

The Sandesara group’s promoters are now fugitives.

On June 14, 2017, Asthana was promoted to the rank of director general by his parent cadre. He was, therefore, eligible to hold the post of special director (which is a director general-rank post) in CBI. But the promotion required the approval of a panel headed by the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC).

The CBI had already conveyed its approval for the promotion of Asthana as special director.

“Last year, when Asthana’s name came up before the CVC KV Chowdary-led panel for elevation to the post of special director in the CBI, the diary was mentioned as one of the key evidence against him to stall his promotion,” said a second person familiar with the matter, a government official.

The CVC-led panel, of which the CBI director is not a member but to whose meetings he is generally invited to for consultation, met on October 21.

“In the meeting, Verma submitted a note to the panel objecting to Asthana’s elevation as special director, saying his name was under the scanner in the Sandesara group probe. But the panel didn’t find the evidence convincing,” added the government official.

Meanwhile, rumours flew thick and fast that the CVC-led panel had rejected Asthana’s name. Late on the night of October 22, the appointments committee of the Union Cabinet cleared the name of Asthana for promotion as a special director along with few other appointments.

Four days later, CVC KV Chowdary clarified in a press interaction that “the CBI director is not a member of the committee. He is a special invitee. He has to be consulted. He has been consulted. In the consultation whether he supported or opposed (the promotion of Asthana), it would not be appropriate for the committee to disclose. His views have been taken note of. Detailed minutes of the meeting have been recorded and the recommendation has been made.”

Chowdary added that the panel was unanimous in its recommendation.

That wasn’t the only challenge Asthana faced, though. In November, activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan filed a public interest litigation on behalf of an NGO, Common Cause, challenging his appointment before the Supreme Court, saying there were doubts over his integrity. The apex court on November 28, 2017, dismissed the petition after the Centre said Asthana had an unblemished service record.

The uneasy relationship between Verma and Asthana continued.

On August 24, Asthana wrote to the cabinet secretary that CBI sleuths got information in December 2017 itself that the “RA” mentioned in the diary of Sandesara Group basically stood for “running account” and referred to transactions between a company of the Sandesara group, Sterling Biotech, and another company which is based in Pune that provides engineering solutions in the energy and environment sector.

“By February this year, CBI sleuths recorded statements of the company’s representative confirming the payments, and received a formal letter in this regard. In fact, all these payments took place through banking channels,” said the CBI official cited above.

In his letter, Asthana alleged that the evidence was deliberately kept hidden to unfairly target him. He also alleged that director Verma refused to allow him to conduct a raid in a case pertaining to the alleged illegal leasing out of two hotels of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) when Lalu Prasad was the railway minister.

“The CVC has asked for all the relevant files to see whether there was any merit in the complaint of Asthana,” said the government official cited above.

The CBI statement last week said that, in the IRCTC cases, Lalu Prasad was formally charged and the charge sheet was filed with the approval of the director.

First Published: Sep 24, 2018 12:52 IST