The internal tussle unfolding within the sanctum of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which sees the top two officers of the agency – CBI Director Alok Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana – pitted against each other, has nuanced undertones of the Centre’s interference.
The biggest development in the ongoing crisis has been the Centre-initiated ‘order of leave’ forced upon the two officials – particularly against CBI Director Verma, which has been seen as a case of the Modi government’s high-handedness, done in an alleged bid to shield the government’s ‘blue-eyed boy’ Rakesh Asthana aka the No 2 in the agency from investigation.
In light of these developments, we take a look at instances in the recent past where the Modi government has adapted a brazen ‘do as you may’ attitude, superseding norms and bending rules to seemingly benefit its own agenda.
The Aadhaar Fight
A glaring attempt by the central government to turn the tables in its favour in the prolonged Aadhaar debate was its order ensuring mandatory linking of SIM cards to Aadhaar – all the while citing an SC order, despite the apex court’s order never specifying so.
In May, when the Centre was pulled up by the top court for making the linking mandatory, the Centre argued citing the latter’s February order, adding that not abiding by it would have led to contempt of court.
However, the apex court clarified that the Centre had ‘misinterpreted’ its order and had instead brazenly used it as a ‘tool’ to make Aadhaar mandatory for mobile users, particularly when the matter was sub judice.
Another obvious attempt by the government at bypassing debates on the Aadhaar Act has been its introduction into the Parliament as a Money Bill.
Introducing the proposed law as a Money Bill would ensure its passage in the Lok Sabha, where the ruling party held majority, while bypassing the scrutiny of the Rajya Sabha and the President’s power to send it back for reconsideration.
Defending the Centre’s nomenclature of the Act as a Money Bill in the Supreme Court, Attorney General KK Venugopal had argued that the Act dealt with "targeted delivery of subsidies" for which funds come from the Consolidated Fund of India.
The Supreme Court had heavily contested this, stating that allowing "any body corporate or person" to use Aadhaar for establishing identity for any purpose "snaps the link with Consolidated Fund of India," indicating that the Aadhaar legislation cannot be called a Money Bill.
However, the Supreme Court’s 26 September verdict on the constitutional validity of Aadhaar was a shot in the arm for the government, when the five-judge bench upheld the Aadhaar Act as a Money Bill with a 4:1 majority.
Prolonged Inaction Against MJ Akbar
Till a few days ago, the #MeToo debate ruled the roust, setting the news agenda across media houses – with one name on all lips – that of MJ Akbar. Former Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar had been accused of sexual harassment by over twenty women, mostly from his days as a journalist.
When the accusations were levelled, expectations were rife that Akbar would step down as soon as he returned from his official trip overseas. Akbar returned. But he did not step down, not till three whole days after he returned. And in this time he had decried the allegations against him, trivialised the survivors’ statements and filed a defamation suit against one of the survivors.
All this while, the government and Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj evaded questions from the media on the topic, shying away from the cameras.
In fact, the government also reportedly shot down a suggestion of asking Akbar to cut his overseas trip short and return. Instead, Akbar had been asked to keep a senior government official abreast of how he was managing the crisis, a report by The Economic Times said.
Ultimately succumbing to pressure from the media and other quarters, Akbar tendered his resignation from the External Affairs Ministry on 17 October.
CBI vs CBI
Most recently, the Centre, via the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) on 24 October, ousted CBI Director Alok Verma, sending him and Special Director Rakesh Asthana on a temporary leave, while appointing Joint Director Nageshwar Rao the interim head.
This comes amid reports of Verma having prepared to initiate a preliminary probe into the alleged Rafale scam, acting on a complaint filed by Arun Shourie, Prashant Bhushan and Yashwant Sinha.
Now, according to the Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE) Act, the CBI director can be appointed or suspended solely by a panel consisting of the prime minister, the CJI and the leader of Opposition. Hence, the decision to suspend Verma could only be taken by the special committee, and not by the DoPT.
Further, Section 4B of the DSPE Act specifies a two-year tenure for the CBI director, and also notes that a CBI director cannot be transferred without the prior consent of the appointing committee.
On these grounds, Verma challenged the government’s leave order in the Supreme Court, claiming that the Centre had bypassed established procedures and had therefore “violated the independence of the CBI.” He further alleged that Asthana, a Gujarat cadre dubbed ‘Modi’s blue-eyed boy’ by the Opposition, had “stymied” decisions that “were crucial to the progress of certain investigations.” He also alleged that Asthana misused his position to stall investigations in several sensitive cases.
The Centre, for its part, released a statement claiming that the leave order was directed after much consideration, and in the “interest of equality, fair play and principles of natural justice under the Section 4(2) of the DSPE Act.”