What Was Alok Verma’s Problem?

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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Adhia can smile again | Nothing’s for sure | Gehlot versus Pilot | Passing the Rathore test

Gujarat cadre IPS officer Rakesh Asthana’s recent elevation to the post of special director, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), appears to have split India’s premier investigative agency down the middle. In a highly unusual move, CBI chief Alok Verma has taken an open stand against the decision. To drum up support for his position, Verma even collared sections of the ‘friendly’ media to plant stories that Chief Vigilance Commisioner KV Chowdary had vociferously opposed Asthana’s promotion at a meeting held before it happened. Obligingly, the media put out reports that the CVC as well as some CBI officials had invoked the integrity clause to point out that the Bureau itself was investigating Asthana in a case related to a raid by the CBI and ED on the Gujarat- based Sandesara business group and so a higher post for him would be inappropriate. The lawyer activist Prashant Bhushan promptly dubbed the move—announced by the Cabinet Committee on Appointments—‘illegal’ and said he would challenge it in court. This aided Verma’s campaign. What was going on? Given that Asthana has held the crucial post of additional director in charge of probes into key cases including that of Vijay Mallya and the AugustaWestland scam, CBI insiders and other sources say Verma’s overdrive is no surprise. Many CBI officials handling key cases have reportedly stopped responding to Verma’s instructions. So, whose game was Verma mischievously playing with his Operation Trounce Asthana?

Adhia can smile again

Adhia can smile againDespite the literal meaning of his name, Revenue Secretary Hasmukh Adhia has had little to laugh about lately. He has been the fall guy for the innumerable problems in GST implementation. Adhia has been under pressure from his counterparts in other key ministries to urgently address critical taxation issues in each sector and address demands. The Commerce Ministry, for example, has wanted exemptions for exporters. Thankfully for Adhia, he can smile again. The pressure on him has eased after the Government took a decision some days back to restore most of the benefits under the drawback schemes taken away by the GST regime. The schemes were meant to reimburse taxes paid by exporters and confusion over this since the GST roll-out four months ago had become a big headache not just for the export sector but also the Commerce Ministry—and for Adhia. But the biggest beneficiary of revisions may be the ruling BJP in Gujarat. Exporters have been complaining the most about new duty drawback rates, claiming these had eroded their competitiveness, which was already hit hard by slow tax refunds turning their working capital scarce. This double whammy, they maintained, had given their global competitors an edge in export markets and resulted in poor performance. Given that a substantial part of Gujarati enterprise lies in the small and medium scale sector, with firms acting as suppliers to larger exporters, the relief was welcomed widely in the poll-bound state.

Nothing’s for sure

India’s public service broadcaster Prasar Bharati bid goodbye to its chairman and senior journalist A Surya Prakash recently at the end of his three-year term. When he was appointed as its head, Prakash was a senior fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, a right-leaning, New Delhi-based think tank. Prakash had asserted himself as an important voice of the Right in the media, was close to the powerful in the Government, and had probably also expected his association with the Foundation to hold him in good stead. Yet, it’s unclear whether he will get another full term in office. The possibility of an extension until a suitable replacement is found, though, isn’t ruled out. But the uncertainty over his job is a reminder that, notwithstanding how close to the corridors of power one is, nothing can be taken for granted in Narendra Modi’s Government.

Gehlot versus Pilot

Gehlot versus PilotSachin Pilot’s perceived closeness to Rahul Gandhi has led many to see the former as a Congress chief ministerial probable for Rajasthan. The fact that young Pilot was Rahul’s chosen companion on his African safaris wasn’t lost on party leaders in either Sachin’s own camp or of former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. Pilot’s camp, however, seems displeased by Gehlot’s appointment as the Congress general secretary in charge of Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi where Assembly polls are due soon, that could give the party a big morale boost should the party perform well, especially with the next General Election now just a year-and-a-half away. The 66-year-old—who has twice held Rajasthan’s top political post—seems unlikely now to be contemplating retirement, which could pose a hurdle for Pilot’s political ascent. Young leaders such as Alpesh Thakur and Hardik Patel also seem comfortable parleying with Gehlot. Given all these factors, an improvement in Congress’ showing in the Gujarat elections could give Pilot more grief than it does the BJP. The older leader has decided to go on a state-wide tour pegged on Mahatma Gandhi and Savitribai Phule. The last time Gehlot did such a thing on his own, back in 2008 with the Mahatma as its theme, the Congress registered an electoral upswing in Rajasthan, coming in just short of simple majority. Under Pilot’s care, the Congress lost a recent bypoll in Dholpur, and Gehlot is unlikely to let him forget that in a hurry.

Passing the Rathore test

Passing the Rathore testWhen Rajvardhan Rathore was appointed Union Sports Minister, fellow sportspersons welcomed it. Here at last was a leader who would be sensitive to their concerns. But Rathore discovered he had touched off a controversy when he recently ordered the National Anti-Doping Agency to conduct dope tests on Indian cricketers in accordance with rules laid down by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The test was to be conducted during all games played in the country. A clause in WADA regulations makes it mandatory for cricketers to make themselves available for tests at an hour’s notice, something Indian players have been trying to escape—with a tacit wink from BCCI. Other than this body, every cricket board, including ICC, has been following WADA rules. Rathore took the view that cricketers should not be allowed to duck the test. During his career as a professional shooter, Rathore underwent the test routinely, and he directed the BCCI to enforce it in the interest of clean cricket. No sooner had he ordered this, though, senior cricketers crawled out of the woodwork to demand exceptions for players. They also asked that the tests should not be ad hoc, disturbing players on their “hard earned vacations”, but only at the beginning and end of a series. It has done nothing to lower their reputation as the world’s most pampered sports stars.