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How the CBI has gone rogue under Alok Verma’s watch. The Inside Story

MEN IN FINELY TAILORED SUITS EQUIPPED WITH EXPENSIVE accessories can look out of place in an old black-and-yellow cab. Spotted being ferried from a posh South Delhi hotel, one that has over the years earned a reputation for being a favourite haunt of fixers, to CBI House on 2 Janpath Road, the official home of the director of India’s premier investigative agency, they are all the more conspicuous. Their business interests appear dubious and they seem remarkably comfortable with these short jaunts—they are overly friendly with the chauffeur and look only too glad to leave their luxury vehicles behind, a likely ruse to keep their visit from easy detection.

Despite the risk involved in meeting a top government official who enjoys heavy security, they prefer one-on-one meetings so as not to leave—as is mostly the case—any digital footprint of their confabulations. Some years ago, a business tycoon wanted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in multiple cases of disproportionate income, foreign exchange violations and bribery of officials had reportedly visited the then CBI director 70 times in a span of only 15 months.

Moin Qureshi, a tainted meat exporter from Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, had met then CBI chief Ranjit Sinha on even more occasions at the latter’s official residence during Sinha’s tenure as CBI director from 2012 to 2014. Today, Qureshi’s notoriety—his dealings were even linked to Sinha’s predecessor AP Singh—continues to haunt the CBI, thanks to the reported connections he or his men have had with Alok Kumar Verma, the current CBI chief-in-exile and a 1979 batch Indian Police Service (IPS) officer of the Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram and Union Territories cadre who is in the eye of a storm over a raft of graft allegations and counter allegations that he and his colleague Rakesh Asthana, a 1984 IPS officer of the Gujarat cadre, have levelled against each other, resulting in an unseemly public spat that forced the Centre to send both these officers on leave.

Asthana’s disclosures suggest Alok Verma had an advantage: As a Delhi officer, he was surrounded by powerful political acquaintances who threw their weight behind him and ring-fenced him with their influence

The 57-year-old Asthana, special director at CBI, had written to the Cabinet Secretary and Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) various letters marked as ‘top secret’ with an instruction or request ‘not to go to office’ listing allegations of corruption and bribe-taking against the 61-year-old Verma, and with accusations of attempting to delay and derail key investigations that Asthana had been carrying out. These probes included the Moin Qureshi case, the IRCTC scam (which involves former Bihar Chief Minister and RJD leader Lalu Prasad and his family for handing over the maintenance of two hotels run by the IRCTC to Sujata Hotels in return for a prime plot of three acres in Patna in 2006), and cases linked to Verma’s close associate Rajiv Singh’s brother who had business collaborations with a relative of a powerful Congress politician close to 10 Janpath. Singh, who was joint director, CBI, has been sent back to his parent cadre in Tripura.

Verma, for his part, has replied to the CVC after a long wait, dismissing the charges made against him by Asthana, who had accused him in various letters reviewed by Open that the CBI director either accepted or sought Rs 2 crore in bribes from Hyderabad- based businessman Sana Satish Babu to protect him in a case against Moin Qureshi. Verma insisted that Babu is a witness in the case, not an accused, according to various reports. The case of Babu, incidentally, was the bone of contention between Verma and Asthana that precipitated matters in the agency. The fight between them had spilt out into the public domain, prompting the Government to intervene in an effort to secure the CBI’s image by divesting them of their roles. Babu, as if on cue, later alleged that Asthana through Dubai-based middlemen wanted him to pay Rs 5 crore to hush up the case.

Incidentally, Asthana had sought the arrest of Babu a few months ago. Verma then sent the file to the director of prosecution seeking his opinion on the matter. Asthana contends that the decision on this arrest had to be taken by the CBI director and not the director of prosecution. From a legal point of view, the case against Asthana by Babu appears feeble because Babu’s complaint against him came two months after the CBI filed a case against this Hyderabad resident. Which is why Asthana argues that Babu is an accused in the ‘principal case’—involving Verma—though he was made a witness later by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which has the official mandate to probe economic crimes in India (and enforce related laws).

Rakesh Asthana, special director at CBI, had written to the cabinet secretary and Central Vigilance Commission letters marked  ‘Top Secret’, listing allegations of corruption and bribe-taking against Verma

Now, notwithstanding Verma’s categorical denials of any wrongdoing—after having appealed to the Supreme Court to quash the Government’s order to divest him of his functional role as CBI chief—Asthana’s missive to the CVC brings to the fore several contentious issues, many of which perhaps have not received the attention they deserve. Asthana has alleged in his submission that a formidable Delhi-centric cabal has been formed that derives its power from the clout of its individual members and has the blessings of a political gadfly. In his submission to the Cabinet Secretary, Asthana states that ‘there have been concerted efforts’ by Verma and Rajeshwar Singh of the ED, whose links with journalists are well known, among others ‘to tarnish my image by leaking unverified, unsubstantiated information as well as making malicious insinuations/allegations against me’. Asthana also states: ‘Such baseless information is being supplied to media, by aforesaid officers, and subsequently get them published in social media, as well, in the form of tweets, articles, etc through their contacts who have vested interests.’ Asthana adds in his letter dated August 24th that such campaigns are ‘being intentionally carried out with an objective to demoralize and harass me, so that I am unable to perform my duties, which are very sensitive in nature’.

IN HIS UNDISTINGUISHED CAREER AS A POLICE officer, Verma is known to have surrounded himself with people extremely loyal to him: his personal assistant from his first posting as assistant commissioner of police in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri is regarded as his man Friday even now. Those in the know contend that except for a few years, he had never been associated with anti-graft probes. And that was one reason why at the selection committee meeting to pick a new CBI chief in 2015, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge and then Chief Justice JS Khehar, Kharge raised this point as an objection. It was pertinent. Justice Khehar, however, threw his weight behind Verma as a candidate for the post. Verma was known to be close to certain RSS leaders, including Krishna Gopal and BJP’s Sudhanshu Mittal, endearing him to some BJP leaders who expected that he would do their bidding, the way CBI chiefs are meant to do—that is, pushing ahead with cases against rivals and putting in cold storage those which could hurt their own people. The Prime Minister didn’t object to the choice and Kharge also relented and accepted Justice Khehar’s enthusiastic pitch for Verma.

Ranjit Sinha met Moin Qureshi, a talented meat exporter, 70 times over 15 months at his residence during his tenure as CBI Director

Asthana’s disclosures and Open’s investigations suggest that Verma had an advantage: as a Delhi officer, he was surrounded by powerful officers and political acquaintances who threw their weight behind him and ring-fenced him with their influence. For instance, Asthana talks in his letter of Verma’s plan to induct his men into the CBI fold despite their apparent shortcomings: ‘Soon after Sh Alok Kumar Verma took over as DCBI, Sh KK Sharma, DG, BSF, forwarded the name of Rajeev Krishna (IPS:UP:1991) for induction as JD CBI. Mr Rajeev Krishna’s wife Ms. Meenakshi is an IRS officer, and is sister of Mr. Rajeshwar Singh, Joint Director, ED.’ The letter adds, ‘The Special Unit of CBI considered the proposal of his induction earlier also and had found him not suitable, basically because of integrity issues. Efforts of his wife Ms. Meenakshi to get herself inducted into CBI also did not see the light of the day on similar issues of integrity…. Sh Alok Kumar Verma, DCBI, specifically asked … to clear his name as well, which was also politely turned down.’ The letter from Asthana to the CVC also lists instances of alleged inappropriate demeanour of these officers whom Verma wanted promoted and inducted into CBI. Besides Krishna, they include RA Sanjiv, Prabir Rangan and RK Upadhyaya, all from the Delhi Police. The CBI vigilance unit had opposed the induction of these officers and Verma held Asthana responsible for ‘aborting’ their chances, according to two persons close to the matter.

Asthana and Verma did not get off to a good start. In mid- October 2017, when the CVC convened a meeting attended by the Union Home Secretary and Secretary, Personnel, to decide on the tenure of CBI officials, Verma was an invitee. Verma presented an unsigned note at this meeting though he is not a member of the panel. Besides, the CVC was not required to act on his recommendations or suggestions. His note, however, contained allegations of corruption against Asthana, including one linked to the Sandesara Group, promoted by brothers Nitin and Chetan Sandesara, which is accused of duping a consortium of banks of more than Rs 5,000 crore. The Sandesara scandal surfaced following a 2011 Income Tax raid on the two promoters of the company, where officers found a diary that detailed payments made by them. The Income Tax Department later handed this case over to the CBI. In the diary, there is a mention of one ‘RA’, which Verma maintained was that of Asthana and insisted that he should not be made special director of the CBI. But Verma failed to stall his appointment, cleared as it had been by the Government.

AP Singh has also been linked to Qureshi, whose reported connections with three CBI chiefs, including Verma, now haunts the agency

SINCE THEN, THERE WAS NO LOVE LOST BETWEEN the two officers. According to people close to the matter within the CBI, Asthana’s prospects of becoming the CBI director were bright before the internal feud became a public spectacle. “And many senior officers, not just in the CBI but also in the ED and other agencies fear that he would come after them with vengeance and expose their illegal activities,” says one source.

Delaying tactics allegedly employed by Verma to obstruct probes of high-profile cases were brought to the Cabinet Secretary’s notice by Asthana several months ago, following which the CVC, in a long letter to Verma dated October 23rd, dwelled at length on the Cabinet Secretary’s grave concerns. The letter also noted that despite directives to respond to the charges, Verma had requested more time to furnish his response as the turf war heightened within the CBI. Allegations against Verma were meticulously countered by graft charges against Asthana.

AK Bassi, the CBI officer who was investigating Sana Babu’s claims against Asthana and has been transferred to Andaman & Nicobar Islands, argued in court that he had evidence of the officer’s corruption; he submitted in court details of WhatsApp messages and calls that could allegedly establish a connection between Asthana and Manoj Prasad, a Dubai-based man and an alleged go-between. Prasad, son of former Research and Analysis Wing Director Dineshwar Prasad, has since been arrested.

While his detractors allege that Asthana had connections with businessmen, Asthana and others accuse Verma of far more serious offences, including alleged efforts to delay probes in many cases

Whatever the veracity of Bassi’s claims, the pro-Asthana camp in the CBI and outside say that a ‘tainted’ officer like him should not have been entrusted with such an important probe as this one—given the war of supremacy between the No 1 and No 2 in the CBI. They maintain that naming Bassi to investigate a reported demand for a bribe is violative of CVC guidelines. Besides, Bassi’s modus operandi raises several questions of legal propriety that ought to be upheld in an inquiry that requires phone tapping or monitoring of WhatsApp calls. Bassi may have vouched for the fact that Prasad hadn’t deleted his phone data since March 2017, which meant the CBI could access all his messages with Sana Babu. Bassi had also expressed a worry in court that his replacement, Satish Dagar, could tamper with this evidence to give Asthana a clean chit. Notwithstanding such allegations, Bassi’s claims over call data are problematic from a legal viewpoint. A Supreme Court verdict in the late 1990s laid down that if a telephone needed to be tapped, the Home Secretary of the Union Government or concerned state government would have to issue an order to this effect, which too would be subject to a review by the cabinet, law and telecom secretaries. The court order also stipulated a timeframe for using phone-tapping for an inquiry and calls for offering sufficient grounds for doing so. In the absence of any such required permissions, Bassi will likely face the wrath of the judiciary. Asthana writes in one of his letters that Bassi ‘is an officer of doubtful integrity’ with a reputation for ‘breaking rules and intentional insubordination’. He regrets in his missive that despite ‘such antecedents’, Verma dispatched him to Vadodara and other places in Gujarat ‘to dig out anything against me’. He adds, ‘They are under instructions to conduct investigation against the undersigned (Asthana) and to find out evidence linking the undersigned to Sandesaras.’

Meanwhile, besides the backing of a section of the powerful clique of officers in Lutyens’ Delhi, Verma also had an upper hand within the CBI. His loyalists included Bhanu Bhaskar, Rajiv Singh, Ashish Prasad and AK Sharma, a Gujarat cadre IPS officer once known for his proximity with BJP leaders. Those who back Asthana are Sai Manohar and Murugesan. Rajeshwar Singh of the ED, who has gone on leave now, had been accused by Asthana of trying to malign his reputation. Singh, who had handled crucial cases including the 2G and Aircel-Maxis cases, is under the official scanner over a phone call he received from a reported ISI agent based abroad. In the ED, he wasn’t very comfortable when Rajan Katoch was chief, but he had a smooth relationship with his successor Karnail Singh.

According to sources, CBI Joint Director AK Sharma met Aircel’s former chief C Sivasankaran before a lookout notice against him was diluted, letting the tainted businessman travel abroad

Asthana’s ‘serious’ charges against Verma, says an officer in the CBI, have not found much mention in the media, especially as a result of what he describes as the ‘manipulative ways’ of Verma’s friends who wield clout among reporters. This officer also feels that the pro-Verma camp could attract the support of those opposed to the Modi dispensation, since Asthana is perceived to be closer to the Government than Verma. When pointed out that such a refrain is common within the Government for any charge against its leaders, he says all that is being asked for is fairness. “Asthana also needs to be heard. At the moment, though, efforts are on to make a saint out of Verma who also had friends in the dispensation,” the officer tells Open.

ASTHANA’S ALLEGATIONS OF ACTS OF INDISCRETION against Verma are very serious in nature. Sample this: ‘One day before searches were to be carried out at the premises of Sh Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family members, the DCBI (Verma) instructed the undersigned (Asthana) in the afternoon to call off the search at the premises of Sh Lalu Prasad Yadav and concerned joint director was instructed accordingly. As such, the air ticket of the [Joint Director] was cancelled on the last day before the searches. However, the undersigned again took up the matter with the director, CBI, and insisted not to call off the searches as search warrants from the court had already been obtained by that time, and there was no justification to not comply with the court’s order which would otherwise cause huge embarrassment to the agency, and such conduct would be hard to defend.’ Verma agreed at the last moment, though. Asthana also accuses Verma of forcing officers to do perfunctory searches at the offices and homes of potential economic offenders. The chronological order of the standoff between the officers that followed is quite interesting. It was on August 24th, 2018, that Asthana petitioned the Cabinet Secretary against Verma. The Cabinet Secretary then sent this petition to the CVC on August 30th. On September 11th, the CVC issued a notice to the CBI seeking comments on Asthana’s complaint. And then on October 15th, Verma decided to file an FIR against Asthana. The Government waited until things began hurtling out of control before it issued an 8-page order divesting Verma of CBI’s charge and sending both officers on leave. It said, ‘The grave allegations of corruption by senior functionaries of CBI one against another, which has been widely reported in media, has vitiated the official eco-system of the organization. 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 organization which has deep and visible impact on the overall governance.’ It added, ‘The CVC has also observed that the Director, CBI has been non-cooperative with the Commission, non-compliant with the requirements / directions of the Commission and has created willful obstructions in the functioning of the Commission which is a Constitutional body.’ And so, ‘The Government of India has evaluated the material before it and in the interest of equality, fair play and principles of natural justice, decided to divest Shri Alok Kumar Verma, Director, CBI and Shri Rakesh Asthana, Spl Director, CBI of their functions, power, duty and supervisory role in any manner as Director, CBI and Spl. Director, CBI respectively.’

While his detractors have charged Asthana with connections with businessmen and pointed to the lavish parties that he allegedly held, Asthana and others accuse Verma of far more serious offences, including reported efforts to delay probes in many cases—such as the illegal allotment of prime land in Panchkula to the company that owns the Congress party’s ‘mouthpiece’ National Herald. Pro-Verma men call Asthana a ‘Modi stooge’ and officers close to Asthana describe Verma as a scheming officer behind a smiling face.

Such strong words and bitter rivalries show how institutions lose their lustre in an age of aggressively competitive politics when any news of personal hostility acquires shrill commentary on social media. Worse is how men like Bassi, whose name appears on the ‘agreed list’ of the Government (meaning he is an officer under close watch for improprieties), were allowed to handle cases that require an impartial inquiry. Selective leaks to the media became the order of the day, throwing all caution to the winds. Astonishingly, according to sources, CBI Joint Director AK Sharma met Aircel’s former chief C Sivasankaran before a lookout notice against him was diluted, letting the tainted businessman travel abroad. Sivasankaran met the senior CBI official using an ‘assumed’ identity at the agency’s headquarters, a source said.

It is a sordid story of a few vain men in powerful positions surrendering the values they were meant to uphold by blocking criminal investigations, stalling fair practices and running roughshod over anyone and anything that got in their way—including the rule of law.