CBI Controversy: Govt Mulling Ways To Relocate Asthana
Will the mutual distrust between Verma and Asthana turn out to be a boon in disguise for the Government to contemplate corrective measures to restore ‘system’ in the CBI?
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Whether CBI Director Alok Verma demits his post in the light of the legal fallout or on superannuation of his tenure, but the fate of his bete noire and next in command in the agency, Special Director Rakesh Asthana hangs in the balance too. Asthana is unlikely to become the next CBI Chief.
Although Asthana is dubbed as the blue-eyed boy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi being a Gujarat cadre IPS officer and his purported proximity to the PM is believed to be reason enough to ensure his elevation to the plum position of CBI Director, the Government is reluctant to oblige Asthana. Reason: the government apprehends threat of reprisal inside and outside the CBI.
In the backdrop of the initiatives to salvage the integrity of the CBI, the Government is no longer in a position to take up the cudgels for either of the two officials. Even if the Government has to restore Verma to his post revoking his ‘forced leave’ under duress, it would sound a death knell for Asthana. Likewise, if the Government manages to dispense with Verma keeping him on leave by invoking legal provisions and pave the way for Asthana to take over, the move would be in the eyes of a storm of the opposition that has been standing by Verma since the controversy began for obvious reasons.
As far as the magnitude of allegations against Verma and Asthana are concerned, the Government can neither afford to ignore their alleged offences nor can it initiate punitive action against them unless the on-going probe is over. More, of the two officers, whoever is back in the CBI and regains ‘power’, the situation is supposed to turn worse as he will continue to be at loggerheads with the other with renewed vigour. In order to get out of the complex situation, the Government is contemplating to relocate Asthana to another agency.
If sources privy to the PMO are to be believed, Asthana may be entrusted with the task to head either the National Investigation Agency (NIA) or the Enforcement Directorate (ED). While the ED does not have a regular Director after the superannuation of the last incumbent, Karnal Singh, as Sanjay Kumar Mishra of Indian Revenue Service (IRS) was given additional charge of Director for three months in the agency.
Another option that the Government is exploring to ensure the respectable exit of Asthana from the CBI is at the NIA. Director General of NIA, Y.C. Modi is likely to be replaced by Asthana while the former is to be made the CBI Chief. Modi had been part of the Supreme Court-appointed SIT that probed the 2002 Gujarat riot cases. Sources, however, do not rule out possibility of shifting Asthana to the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) replacing the present incumbent Rajesh Ranjan who is, in turn, likely to be made the next CBI Chief. Ranjan’s name was doing the round for the next CBI Chief even before the breakout of the controversy in the agency.
In fact, with the appointment of Sanjay Kumar Mishra as acting Director to the ED, the Government is believed to have kept its option open to accommodate Asthana. As per the set practice, the post of Director in ED must be held at least by an officer of the rank of Additional Secretary and above of the Government of India. Incidentally, Mishra has not been empanelled in the rank of Additional Secretary so far. Consequently, he is not supposed to continue in the post with his present seniority and the Government will be left with no option except to come out with the decision to post another officer of the rank of Additional Secretary.
The past bears testimony to the fact that Special Director Asthana was made officiating Director in the CBI in December 2016, but he could not continue in the post for want of his empanelment to the rank of Director General – equivalent to the Secretary Rank of Government of India– that is mandatory to hold the post of Director in CBI. Consequently, he was reverted to the post of Special Director to pave the way for appointment of Verma as the Director. Although Asthana was subsequently empanelled to the DG rank, he was asked to remain in his post till the tenure of Verma ended.
However, Asthana’s aspiration to become Director by hook or by crook is believed to have prompted him to dislodge Verma in the garb of the latter’s alleged official misconducts. He reportedly shot off a 17-page missive to the Cabinet Secretary levelling charges of official misconducts against Verma and the Cabinet Secretary sent it to the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, in turn, for further investigation.
Consequently, in order to ward off the possible threat of his unceremonious removal, Verma, however, resolved to launch a counter offensive by levelling charges of corruption against Asthana. He ordered investigation into graft cases against Asthana in the light of the FIR lodged by one Satish Babu Sana against Dubai-based conduits, Manoj Prasad and his brother Somesh Prasad. In the FIR, the Prasad-duo were accused of working in tandem with Asthana to hush up a CBI case pertaining to Sana’s alleged involvement in the infamous Moin Akhtar Qureshi case. Incidentally, even as the FIR included names of other senior officers such as Samant Goel and Parvez Hayat for playing a dubious role on behalf of the Prasads, it drew hardly any notice of the CBI team presumably working at the behest of Verma. This is believed to be one of the main reasons behind the mutual distrust between Verma and Asthana.
However, it will be a tight-rope walk for the Government to appoint Asthana as the ED Chief too. Notably, the ED has sought permission from the court to initiate action against Sterling Biotech Group that is under CBI probe for alleged links with Asthana. It was alleged that the Sterling Biotech group had hosted the opulent wedding of Asthana’s daughter at Vadodara’s Laxmi Vilas Palace reportedly in November 2016. As per a media report, a CBI team arrived at Vadodara on October 21, 2018 to obtain details of the lavish wedding ceremony. Over a dozen businessmen have reportedly been questioned by the CBI team in this regard.
Meanwhile, the ED’s initiative to move a Special Court seeking permission to declare owners of the Gujarat-based Sterling Biotech Group fugitive in an alleged Rs. 8,100 crore bank loan fraud and attach their assets worth about Rs. 5000 crore assumes even greater significance in the light of Asthana’s possible posting as ED Director. Aspersions are cast over fair investigations against the owners of the Sterling Biotech Group by the ED if Asthana is made Director in the agency be fair.
It is learnt that Nitin Sandesara, Chetan Sandesara, Dipti Sandesara are owners of the Sterling Group while Hitesh Patel is their Chartered Accountant and they are alleged to have fled the country to skip criminal proceedings against them in the Rs 8,100-crore bank loan fraud involving a consortium of banks. While the Sandesaras are reported to be in Nigeria, Patel is said to have fled to the US.
To top it all, pertinent questions that remained unanswered are: What are the option that the Government has been left with to salvage the credentials of premier institutions while dealing with such complex situations? Will the mutual distrust between Verma and Asthana turn out to be a boon in disguise for the Government to contemplate corrective measures to restore ‘system’ in the CBI? What about other institutions that are plagued with corrupt practices but the authorities concerned prefer to suppress irregularities to enjoy their ‘share’ by working in tandem with each other? Or, should the Government abet distrust among authorities to overhaul the system?