Officially, India’s deep state has gone to war, as senior officials of the country’s top anti-corruption agency were divested of their roles and asked to go on leave in the early hours of Wednesday. As the controversy unfolds, it has now dragged in officials from India’s top federal police, intelligence and income-tax agencies in a major crisis for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Alok Verma, director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), equivalent to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, was asked to proceed on leave after a series of meetings that ended at 2am in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Verma had ordered the filing of a case against his immediate deputy, special director Rakesh Asthana. Both of them belong to the elite Indian Police Service (IPS).

The tussle began when Verma formally raised objections to Asthana being inducted to the CBI. The law has a provision where all senior appointments in the CBI have to be vetted by the director. At that time Verma had argued in a note that Asthana was a suspect and a possible accused in cases being investigated by the CBI.

Therefore, said Verma, a potential accused could not be in a senior role in the agency that was probing him. However, the Central Vigilance Commission, which had administrative control over the CBI, overruled his objections. The fact that Asthana hailed from Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Modi, and was considered close to him was not missed.

Genesis of the crisis

Ironically, the crisis began with two major investigations targeting the previous Congress-led government, which lost the elections to Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. These investigations targeted former finance minister P Chidambaram and his son Karti Chidambaram. The other cases were filed against a Delhi-based businessman and meat exporter known as Moin Akhtar Qureshi, who was also allegedly close to the earlier Congress-led government.

The case against P Chidambaram was being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and specifically by Dr Rajeshwar Singh, a police officer who was on deputation from the state of Uttar Pradesh.  The Qureshi case was under the CBI. However, Singh was also facing a Public Interest Litigation that alleged corruption and lapses that posed a “threat to national security.” Curiously, at this stage, several other key officials began to become part of what is now a major web of conspiracy involving several national agencies.

The intelligence man

Samant Kumar Goel is currently a special secretary in India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW). A 1984-batch officer who was allocated the state of Punjab, Goel moved to the intelligence agency nearly 20 years ago. He was mentioned in the First Information Report (FIR) filed by the CBI on October 15 in its investigation into an alleged corruption case against Asthana. Interestingly, Asthana and Goel are batch mates and have been known to be friends for a long time.

Samant Kumar Goel, Special Director, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Photo:The Punjabi Society of British Isles
File photo of Samant Kumar Goel, special secretary in India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing. Photo: Courtesy The Punjabi Society of The British Isles

Goel is connected to the present imbroglio for three reasons. In October last year, RAW raised an unsigned two-page, seven-paragraph report alleging that Rajeshwar Singh was in touch with an Indian businessman in Dubai who was allegedly also connected to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). As “proof” RAW cited a phone call made by Singh to Mohammed Alam Danish Shah, a Dubai-based Indian businessman. Shah’s wife Afaha Munir is a Pakistani, and the report claimed that he was also in touch with Mian Usman Javed, who is associated with Ji Youth Pakistan.

The report also claimed that Javed was in touch with Abhishek Verma, an Indian businessman accused of being an “arms dealer” in two cases in India. This two-page report was prepared under the supervision of Goel and delivered to the federal revenue secretary, Hasmukh Adhia, in October last year. This was also submitted to the Supreme Court in a sealed envelope in the petition filed against Rajeshwar Singh.

However, as soon as this RAW report was leaked, the Enforcement Directorate reacted furiously and issued a public statement rubbishing it. In an unusual official release, the ED stated that Singh was in touch with Dubai-based Shah, who “gave important information regarding a case being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate.” This public rebuttal was followed by the ED’s chief, also a senior police officer, Karnail Singh, who wrote to the RAW chief stating that this report “surfaces at a time when the officer is due for promotion. It is therefore important that in the light of above facts [the] matter may be re-examined and records may be set right.”

In October last year, Adhia was tipped as one of the contenders to be the cabinet secretary, the top bureaucratic position, while Goel was hoping to be the next chief of RAW in December this year. His batch mate Asthana was eligible to be the CBI chief, once the current incumbent retired next February. While Goel is not the senior-most in the organization, he was hoping that the government would promote him over three other colleagues who are senior to him.

Goel also figures in the FIR where a signed statement by the complainant, a businessman named Sathish Babu Sana names Asthana and his colleagues for allegedly “extorting” money for closing a pending case against him. Sana mentions that Goel is an officer known to Manoj Prasad, who is allegedly the conduit for the bribe money meant for Asthana. Prasad was arrested by the CBI and is currently in custody.

Finally, this year, one of Goel’s subordinates in RAW, who was dismissed from service, filed a petition challenging his dismissal in the Central Administrative Tribunal. The Tribunal is tasked with dealing with all service-related litigation in India. Jitendra Kumar Ojha alleged in his petition that senior RAW officials posted in London had deliberately diluted India’s efforts to extradite “absconding criminals” facing charges in India from the UK.

Goel was the station chief of RAW in London during the period that Ojha alludes to. Ironically, one of the cases pertained to another alleged arms dealer, Ravi Shankaran, who was an associate of Abhishek Verma, the businessman mentioned in the secret RAW report against Rajeshwar Singh.

In a tight spot

The controversy has put the Modi government in a bind, with general elections just a few months away. The CBI and the RAW report directly to the Prime Minister’s Office. As the prime minister, Modi is directly in charge of the organizations administratively, and in some cases, even operationally.

While Asthana’s proximity to the prime minister is well known, it is also a fact that Verma was appointed as the director of the CBI despite fierce objections from the opposition parties. The Modi government backed Verma and ensured his appointment. In turn, when Verma opposed Asthana’s deputation to the CBI, the government again stepped in and pushed the case and inducted him.

However, as the current controversy blew up, the Modi government issued an order after midnight, sending both senior officers on leave. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley stated at a press conference on Wednesday morning that this was done to “ensure the fairness” of the investigations and the credibility of the organization.

However, doubts were raised when the whole team that was investigating Asthana was also transferred within a matter of hours. The lead investigating officer was posted out to the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, thousands of kilometers from Delhi.

The government has not decided to remove Goel from his current position in RAW, even though he handles several sensitive assignments including online and cyber-surveillance operations. Top government sources said that any possible misuse of surveillance in the current case would also be “discreetly probed.”

Meanwhile, Verma has challenged this order in the Supreme Court and will be heard on Friday.