PM Modi steps in as infight veers out of control

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday tried to douse the fires in the top echelons of the CBI, with its top two officers accusing each other of corruption. The latest in the deplorable saga is a bribery case that the CBI has filed against its number 2 officer, Rakesh Asthana, who had written to the government levelling serious allegations against his boss Alok Verma.

Asthana, a Gujarat cadre officer whom Rahul Gandhi has dubbed as “the PM’s blue-eyed boy,” was elevated as number 2 in the CBI in controversial circumstances last year and given charge of major cases.  Both CBI director Verma and his no 2 Asthana have been at loggerheads since then and were summoned separately for a meeting with the Prime Minister.

Seizing the opportunity, Verma reportedly sought removal of his deputy Asthana, who is tipped to succeed him, in view of the FIR registered against him on October 15.

There was no word on any decision that has been taken by Prime Minister Modi, though he later had a meeting with Central Vigilance Commissioner Pradeep Kumar, who is investigating various charges of corruption and interference in sensitive cases levelled by Asthana against Verma.

In a related development, investigating officer Devender Kumar, an aide of Asthana, also named in the bribe FIR, was arrested on Verma’s orders before he went to South Block to meet the PM. Devender Kumar is charged with making false statements against Verma.

In an unprecedented fallout of the fight, the CBI searched its own offices — specifically the rooms of senior officers who have worked with Asthana. The day’s developments constrained Congress president Rahul Gandhi to remark that CBI is an institution in terminal decline ‘‘that’s at war with itself.”

The feeling in the Congress circles is that the Prime Minister can do little to help Asthana, except at the most stalling his arrest. But he surely can’t do anything against the CBI chief who has an assured 2-year term until next January under a Supreme Court decision and hence cannot be removed from the post.The tussle is on between Verma, a former Delhi Police Commissioner, and Asthana, a Gujarat cadre IPS officer of 1984 batch, since last year, when the former made an unsuccessful bid to stall Asthana’s promotion as the Special Director.

Matters between them again came to a head on August 24 when Asthana complained to the Cabinet Secretary alleging the CBI chief’s interference in cases allotted to him; he further accused his boss of allegedly taking a bribe from Hyderabad businessman Sana Satish Babu in a particular case concerning UP’s meat exporters.  The bribe was allegedly intended to ensure the removal of a lookout notice that prevented the suspect from going abroad.

According to Asthana, it was the CBI chief who allegedly took the bribe but had framed him instead, because he prevented Sathish Sana from fleeing the country. Sana had, during his interrogation, “admitted” to bribing the CBI director, Asthana claimed in his letter to the Cabinet Secretariat. The letter also listed 10 instances of corruption, criminal misconduct and interference in investigation of sensitive cases. The claim has been termed fraudulent by the CBI and for this it has arrested Devender Kumar.

Asthana, who had probed the Godhra train burning incident of 2002 as then Inspector General of Police in Vadodara range, was brought into the CBI in 2016. He was in fact made the acting CBI director after retirement of Anil Sinha in December 2016 until the appointment of Alok Kumar Verma as the new director.

The FIR registered against Asthana on October 15 may scuttle his prospects to head the CBI after Verma retires in January, though it may pave the way for another of PM Modi’s favourite — Y C Modi. This Modi was brought into the CBI in July 2015 and worked for two years before he was promoted in September last year as the chief of the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

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