New Delhi, Oct 24 (IANS) In a dramatic midnight development, the government virtually removed CBI Director Alok Verma amid speculation that he was planning to order a probe into the controversial Rafale deal, a charge Finance Minister Arun Jaitley dismissed as “rubbish” saying it was done to ensure fairplay in investigations into bribery allegations levelled in the war between him and the agency’s number two Rakesh Asthana.
As an unseemly rift between the two top officials escalated into a full-blown war over the past few days, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet met last night and appointed M. Nageshwar Rao, a Joint Director to look after the duties and functions of CBI Director. An official statement later said that in the interest of equality, fairplay and principles of natural justice, the government decided to divest Verma and Asthana of their “functions, power, duty and supervisory role in any manner as Director CBI and Special Director CBI respectively”.
On a day of fast-moving developments, Rao transferred as many as 13 officers of the agency, perceived to be close to Verma, who were probing bribery charges against the Special Director. The CBI also re-constituted the team probing the case against Asthana.
Verma, who cannot be removed from office as he has a mandated two-year term that ends in December, challenged in the Supreme Court the orders of the CVC and the government, saying they struck at the independence of CBI and were outside their jurisdiction. The Court will hear the case on Friday.
The official statement said the action against Verma and Asthana was taken on the recommendation of the Central Vigilance Commission, which met on Tuesday evening and divested the two officials of their functions and powers in respect of cases already registered and/or required to be probed under the Prevention of Corruption Act. It said grave allegations of corruption by senior functionaries of CBI against one another has vitiated the official ecosystem of the organisation.
“The environment of faction feud has reached its peak in the CBI leading to a potential loss of credibility and reputation of the premier investigating agency of the government. It also vitiated the working environment of the organisation which has deep and visible impact on the overall governance,” it said, adding that it was an interim measure which will subsist till CVC concludes its inquiry and appropriate decision is taken in the light of the probe.
The war between the two officials had escalated after Asthana had written to the CVC in August levelling allegations of misconduct and corruption in the probe into meat exporter Moin Qureshi case while the CBI registered a case on Sunday against Asthana accusing him of accepting bribe to settle Qureshi’s case.
The midnight government action immediately triggered a political war with opposition parties alleging that the government acted against Verma because he could be looking at a probe into the Rafale allegations over which a delegation of former union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and senior advocate Prashant Bhushan had given a memorandum seeking a probe. They said the decision also struck at the independence of the investigating agency and constitutional authorities.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi said by sending Verma on a “forced leave” for collecting documents on the Rafale “scam”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given a clear message that anyone coming around the jet deal will be “wiped out”. The country and the constitution are in danger, he said in a tweet.
Addressing a public meeting in poll-bound Rajasthan, he said “do you know what the chowkidar (PM) did at night. The chowkidar removed the CBI Director because CBI was raising questions on Rafale deal. CBI Director had called for papers on Rafale.”
His party’s spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala asked whether the CBI Director was “sacked” for his keenness to probe “the layers of corruption in Rafale scam.”
Congress leader and senior advocate Abhishek Singhvi said the government’s decision stripping Verma of his duties was in violation of the Lokpal Act and the Supreme Court judgement in the Vineet Naryan case. He asserted that the CVC had no power to either recommend the removal of Verma or appointment of a new director.
In his reaction, Delhi Chief Minister and AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal said: “What are the reasons for sending CBI director on leave? Under which law did the Modi government get the authority to initiate action against the chief of an investigating agency appointed as per the Lokpal Act? What is the Modi government trying to hide?”
CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said the “illegal removal” of CBI chief by the Modi government “to protect their own handpicked officer, against whom serious charges of corruption are being investigated, points to attempts at a serious cover-up to protect his direct links to the BJP’s top political leadership”.
“To ensure that the CBI is not a caged parrot, Supreme Court had granted protection to the Chief from government’s whims and fancies by giving him a two-year tenure. What is Modi government trying to hide by its panic move? #BJPCorruption,” the Left leader added.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took a dig saying CBI should be renamed as “BJP Bureau of Investigation”. “CBI has now become so-called BBI — very very unfortunate,” she tweeted.
At a post-cabinet media briefing, Jaitley rejected the opposition allegation that Verma was removed because he was going to order a probe into the charges in the Rafale deal. He said the step was taken on the recommendation of the CVC to maintain the institutional integrity of the probe agency.
He said that an SIT will be formed to go into mutual allegations of bribery levelled by Verma and Asthana in keeping with the principle that those accused will not probe the charges or supervise investigation into charges against them.
“I regard this as rubbish. Three opposition parties are saying that we know what the agency was going to do next (Rafale probe). This cast doubts on the fairness of the probe. I don’t believe this is true. If what the the three parties are saying is true, then this itself casts serious doubts on the fairness of the investigation. It violates the integrity of the person.
“I still believe everybody is presumed to be innocent till proved otherwise. We don’t want to prejudge. We are committed to ensuring that India’s investigating process does not become a mockery as some officers have attempted to do in the last few days.
“It is important that the integrity of CBI as an institution be maintained. That is why some officers must stand out for the time being as an interim measure. If they are innocent they will come back,” he said.
He was replying to a question on the charge by Congress, AAP and CPI-M that Verma was shunted out because he was going to order a probe into the allegations on the Rafale deal over which former ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and senior Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan had given a memorandum demanding a probe.