In a major setback for the probity and independence of anti-corruption bodies in India, a panel led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi sacked the chief of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Thursday night. The CBI is the equivalent of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and is the premier anti-corruption body in India.

The government’s urgency to remove Alok Verma within a day of being reinstated by the apex court raises several questions. Some say that Verma was set to order a preliminary enquiry (PE) into the Modi government’s plans to buy 36 Rafale combat jets from France, a deal that has provoked difficult questions from the Opposition

In October 2018, the Modi government had removed Verma, after he filed a case against his deputy, Rakesh Asthana, accusing him of accepting a massive bribe. Both Verma and Asthana belong to the elite Indian Police Service (IPS). While Verma has been removed, Asthana has been sent on leave, but the case against him remains active. Another senior intelligence official, Samant Goel, whose name also cropped up in the investigation against Asthana, remains in a powerful position in India’s external intelligence agency.

Verma immediately went to the Supreme Court seeking his reinstatement as CBI chief. Nearly two and a half months after hearing the case, the Supreme Court reinstated Verma on the condition that the high-powered committee that appointed him made the final decision on his status.

As per India’s existing laws, only a high-powered committee comprising the prime minister, the chief justice of India, and the leader of the opposition can appoint or remove the CBI chief. This is due to a historic 1997 Supreme Court case, known as the Vineet Narain judgment, that mandated that to maintain the independence of the CBI, the chief must be appointed by a high-powered committee and given a two-year tenure. The committee comprised Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Justice A K Sikri, who was deputed by the chief justice in his place, and the leader of the opposition, Mallikarjun Kharge. While Modi and Justice Sikri agreed to remove Verma, Kharge dissented, raising several objections.

Independence at stake

The Vineet Narain judgment came in the wake of a major money-laundering case that saw the government manipulating the investigation to protect powerful politicians and officials. Worried that such a premier agency could be influenced so easily, the Supreme Court laid down strict guidelines.

However, as Verma’s removal has now shown, any CBI chief can be summarily dismissed by the government in power with minimal resistance. The genesis of the case lies in the appointment of Asthana, an IPS officer from the Gujarat cadre. Asthana is believed to be very close to the prime minister and served under him for the better part of his career when Modi was the chief minister of the state. After moving to Delhi as the prime minister in May 2014, Modi inducted Asthana into the CBI. Incidentally, the CBI falls under the Ministry of Personnel and Public Grievances, which comes directly under the control of the prime minister.

Asthana’s promotion following his induction into the CBI was opposed by director Verma, who pointed out that there were several conflicts of interest. In a letter to the promotion committee, Verma had pointed out that Asthana’s name had cropped up in a major CBI investigation and therefore he was not eligible to be promoted or remain in the organization. This objection was overruled by the Central Vigilance  Commission (CVC), which sided with the Modi government’s decision to promote Asthana.

In due course, Asthana would have emerged as a strong candidate for the post of CBI chief after Verma’s two-year tenure ended on February 2, 2019.

According to several top police officials Asia Times spoke to, the high-powered panel’s decision has weakened the CBI beyond repair

According to several top police officials Asia Times spoke to, the high-powered panel’s decision has weakened the CBI beyond repair. “The matter was simple. Was Verma procedurally correct in his actions? The Supreme Court’s order reinstating him is implicit in substance that Verma’s actions did not merit his removal earlier,” a senior police official familiar with the case told Asia Times.

Another senior police official, who spent a substantial amount of time in the CBI, pointed out that the legitimacy of the decision to sack Verma was questionable. “The high-powered committee cited the allegations against Verma to remove him. But similar allegations, along with intercepted calls and telephone records, remain against Samant Goel. In fact, leader of the Opposition Kharge also mentioned Goel in his dissenting letter. But the government has allowed him to continue in a very sensitive position while displaying unprecedented alacrity in Verma’s removal,” the official said.

In a late night statement issued to a news agency Verma said that he was removed on the basis of “false, unsubstantiated and frivolous allegations made by only one person who was inimical to him”.

‘Judicial evasion’?

The role of the Supreme Court has also come in for criticism from some quarters.

In a scathing signed article published early on January 10, Delhi-based Supreme Court lawyer Gautam Bhatia described it as “judicial evasion.” He wrote: “This is not the first time that an important, time-sensitive case has been dragged on in a manner that materially affects the situation of the parties.”

He pointed out that “…the Supreme Court dragged [Verma’s petition] on for months a case that could have been decided within days. And this was of crucial significance: Mr. Verma retires at the end of January. It is questionable what, precisely, does it really mean for the Supreme Court to “reinstate” him midway through January.”

Prime Minister Modi’s tenure has been unprecedented in many ways, and as his detractors say, hurt the institutional credibility of several independent organizations. An unprecedented rebellion by the senior-most judges of the Supreme Court spilled out into the open. The decision to demonetize 87% of India’s currency raised questions about the Reserve Bank Of India’s autonomy. RBI governor Urjit Patel resigned a month ago, apparently after the government tried to dip into its strategic cash reserves. Now, the CBI case has undermined the prime minister’s pre-2014 promises to minimize corruption in public bodies in India.