SC and protecting sanctity of institutions

Amritananda Chakravorty

Not a week goes without reports about the deliberate destruction of the autonomy and robustness of the institutions critical for the Indian democracy. Last week was the turn of the Central Bureau of Investigation (‘CBI’), aka ‘caged parrot’. No one was under any illusion about CBI’s autonomy or its independence, but the events of the last week even surprised, rather shocked the known sceptics too. Though the reports of feud between the top two officials of the CBI, Alok Verma, Director of CBI, and Rakesh Asthana, Special Director, CBI, have been doing the rounds for almost a year, the matter came to a head when CBI filed a FIR against Rakesh Asthana under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 for alleged corruption in Moin Qureshi’s case on 15th October, 2018, a meat exporter who is being investigated for various offences by CBI and Enforcement Directorate (‘ED’).  On 23rd October, 2018, Rakesh Asthana approached the Delhi High Court to quash the said FIR, but the High Court only directed the CBI not to take any coercive action against him till 29th October, and did not stay the investigation into the FIR.
Meanwhile, in a midnight coup, both the Prime Minister’s Office (‘PMO’), and the Central Vigilance Commission (‘CVC’) colluded, at the behest of PM Narendra Modi, and BJP President, Amit Shah, to remove Alok Verma as Director, and Rakesh Asthana as Special Director, on the ostensible ground of conducting ‘fair investigation’. They further appointed M. Nageshwar Rao, as the Interim director, who immediately transferred the officials investigating Rakesh Asthana, in order to completely derail the enquiry. Removing Alok Verma from his post was a blatant violation of the law, since as per the Supreme Court order in Vineet Narain vs. Union of India, the CBI Director enjoys a fixed tenure of two years, and cannot be removed before that, and his removal has to be done only by a high powered committee comprising of PM, Leader of Opposition, and the Chief Justice of Supreme Court.
Challenging his arbitrary removal, Alok Verma approached the Supreme Court on 24th October, 2018, and the Supreme Court in a balanced order gave some interim directions, including the completion of the CVC enquiry against Alok Verma within two weeks, under the supervision of retired Supreme Court judge, Shri A.K. Patnaik. The Court also directed that Nageshwar Rao would not take any policy decision or any major decision, and would carry out only routine tasks till the next hearing, and all the decisions taken by him, including transfer decisions, would have to be submitted to the Court in a sealed cover. [Alok Verma vs. Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 1309 of 2018, date of order: 26.10.2018]
Credible reports have surfaced that Alok Verma was removed in such a hurried fashion, since he wanted to do a preliminary enquiry into the allegations of corruption in the Rafale deal, which directly implicates the Prime Minister himself.  The Rafale case is also pending the Supreme Court, where the Court has asked the Government to produce the materials, which it supposedly considered, before taking the decision to award the contract to Anil Ambani’s company. At the same time, numerous allegation of corruption have been made against Rakesh Asthana, and how he ran an extortion racket, blackmailing the opposition leaders, with the threat of CBI prosecution. It is very clear that what is happening in CBI is only the tip of the iceberg, and symptomatic of the institutional malaise that has deep roots and history in CBI. Though the media is busy painting the whole thing as an ‘in-fighting’ between two CBI officials, the truth is that it is a war of the Modi Government against even a semblance of institutional independence of CBI. The timing of Alok Verma’s removal leaves no doubt about who the Government wants to protect, and it is not even Rakesh Asthana. It is a clear message from the top to toe the line, and not to ask uncomfortable questions, or to conduct any investigation into the allegations of Government corruption.
All eyes are on the Supreme Court now, like it has happened so many times recently. The rampage of the Modi Government bypassing all institutional norms has to be halted, and only the Apex Court can do it. Alok Verma needs to reinstated, and Rakesh Asthana has to be removed. Proper investigation into Rafale has to be conducted under the Court’s supervision. This is the first big test of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, and we have to see whether he walks the talk of what the four judges said in the 12th January press conference that ‘democracy was in peril’. (IPA)

Wednesday, 14 November, 2018