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When PMO Burnt Midnight Oil in Defence of its ‘Hatchet Man’

P Raman |
Rakesh Asthana, who won a PIL challenging his appointment as Delhi police chief, headed SIT on Godhra train burning, Ahmedabad bomb blast and led several politically sensitive probe cases, like AgustaWestland and coal scam.
Rakesh Asthana

Rakesh Asthana. Commissioner of Police Delhi. | Image Courtesy: Twitter

The controversial Gujarat cadre Indian Police Service or IP officer Rakesh Asthana has again had his way. The Delhi High Court on October 12 ruled that there was no irregularity in his appointment as Delhi Police Commissioner. Home minister Amit Shah’s much favoured officer was appointed to the post on July 27, 2021. This was just three days before his formal retirement on July 31. The new appointment, thus, gave Asthana an additional one-year tenure.

As the PIL (public interest litigation) challenging the appointment was getting delayed, the Supreme Court had on August 25 ordered the Delhi High Court to dispose of the case quickly. The lower court has now let Asthana off the hook. And he once again has cocked a snook at his detractors.

Who is Rakesh Asthana?

Asthana belongs to the growing genre of smart IPS officers who could instinctively sense which side his bread is buttered. This enabled him to swiftly climb the professional ladder. He first rose to fame when in 1997 he led the arrest of the then unassailable Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav and the prosecution was launched.

Asthana’s first breakthrough came when the Narendra Modi- Amit Shah (the then Gujarat cheif minister and home minister, respectively) duo asked him to head the special investigation team (SIT) to probe the 2002 Godhra train burning case.

This brought Asthan closer to the two. Since then he has never looked back. In 2008, he headed the SIT that probed the Ahmedabad bomb blast. His horizon widened after Modi became Prime Minister. Since then he has had everything for his asking. The Modi-Shah team made it a point to assign to him politically sensitive investigations, such as the AgustaWestland chopper deal and the coal scam. 

But Asthana’s heart lay elsewhere. His cherished dream of heading the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) was realised within two years of the National Democratic Alliance government’s ascent. No other government in India had ever staked so much to safeguard the interests of one officer.

What followed was a series of litigations, late night confabulations by the PM’s team, midnight sackings and appointments and Supreme Court interventions. In the process, the entire administration was pushed into one of its worse conundrums. Asthana was the centre of all these legal battles that continued for weeks. Look at the sequence of events that unfolded.

The Sequence of Events

In April 2016, the government appointed Asthana as additional director of CBI. To facilitate this, it had to transfer special CBI director R K Dutta to the home ministry (November 30). Two days later (December 2) Asthana was inducted as interim director.

A day before Asthana was made special director, CBI director Alok Varma handed over a confidential note to the cabinet secretary alleging the former was paid a bribe of Rs. 3.88 crore by Sterling Biotech. The tussles within the CBI reached a flashpoint on June 12, 2018 when Verma objected to Asthana representing him at official meetings to decide the tenure of other officers on the ground that the special director himself was under scanner in many cases.

On August 24, Asthana sent a complaint to the cabinet secretary alleging wrong doings by Verma. The Cabinet secretary forwarded it to the Central Vigilance Commissioner or CVC (The Economic Times, October 22). The Verma-led CBI filed an FIR against Asthana on October 15 alleging he accepted a bribe of Rs. 2 crore to settle a case against the Hyderabad-based businessman Satish Sana.  

The CVC, who had by now become an active member of the political group, obliged by recommending that Alok Verma be divested of all powers. This was at 8.30 p.m on October 23. In a sordid drama reminiscent of the Emergency days, at 11.30 at night, the cabinet panel decided to send both Verma and Asthana on forced leave and appointed Orissa cadre M. Nageswara Rao as interim director of the CBI.

At 12 midnight, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval summoned the additional secretary (establishment) to the Prime Minister’s Office. At 1.30 a.m, i.e. October 24, CBI officials took charge of all files relating to exporter Moin Qureshi, Ashtana and Verma.

At 2.30 a.m, the orders were handed to Verma and Ashtana. Nageswara Rao, who was staying awake throughout the night, ordered the transfer of all pro-Verma officers en bloc at 7 a.m. Three hours later, i.e., at 10 a.m, Verma moved Supreme Court against the orders passed against him.  Incidentally, the erstwhile CBI director came to know about his removal from his own lawyer. (The Indian Express, Oct 22)

This was the first part of the nasty drama that played out directly under the PMO’s watchful eyes. Sensing impropriety, the Supreme Court on October 26 (2018) ordered CVC to complete his inquiry against Verma within a fortnight. On November 9, Verma and Asthana deposed before CVC. In a slap to the government, the Supreme Court on January 8, 2019 set aside the order against Verma and reinstated him as CBI chief albeit with certain riders.  

Next day, a triumphant Verma resumed office and issued orders rescinding all transfers and postings made by the interim chief Nageswara Rao. On January 10, Verma ordered five more transfers and postings but hours later the PM-led high power committee by a majority removed him as director.

The committee’s majority decision led to more controversies. The Opposition representative, Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge said he was not even shown the CVC’s comments against Verma despite request. Retired Justice A.K. Patnaik who was asked by the Supreme Court to supervise the CVC inquiry that eventually led to the removal of Alok Verma, said on January 11 that there was no evidence of corruption against the ousted director. He resented the ‘very very hasty’ decision of the PM-led panel. Justice Patnaik wondered how the members of the panel found time to read all the 1,000 odd pages with lots of annexures in such a short time (The Indian Express, Jan 12, 2019)

Rot in the System

Behind this main plot were many sinister subtexts that revealed the rot in the system. Several in the CBI establishment had become loyal operators of the political leadership. This gave them a licence to indulge in corruption and bribery. Look at the intrigues indulged in by the entire gamut of top and middle-level sleuths against each other. Both Verma and Asthana – the first and second in CBI – had accused each other of taking bribes from the same Qureshi (who was being probed for corruption) and have investigated the case through their subordinate officers. So much for the integrity of the central agency and the level of its officers’ moral turpitude!  

The extent of intrigues and corruption at the fag end of Modi1.0 regime was such that most officers had something to hide. Deputy Inspector General Manish Kumar Sinha, posted in Anti-Corruption 3 unit, claimed in a petition before the Supreme Court in November 2018 that NSA Doval, Minister of State Haribhai Chaudhary and CVC K.V. Chowdary interfered with the probe against Asthana.  

K V Chowdary was charged with taking a bribe of a ‘few crores of rupees’ to settle a case. For this, the entire investigative team was being penalised, Sinha alleged in the court. The latter was under scanner for allegedly diluting the lookout circular against telecom tycoon Sivasankaran, who was being probed, in the previous year.

Other points mentioned in Sinha’s affidavit were (1) NSA denied him permission to access the cellphones of CBI officials under probe. (2) He stopped an ongoing search on the premises of CBI officer Devender Kumar.  (2) Manoj Prasad, accused in the FIR against Rakesh Asthana said his brother Somesh and Samant Goel had helped the NSA on an ‘important personal matter’.  (3) The FIR quotes Satish Bahu Sana as having met the CVC along with Gorantia Ramesh ‘somewhere’ in Delhi and discussed the Qureshi offer.  

On October 30, CBI DSP Ajay Kumar Bassi alleged in Supreme Court that RAW (Research & Analysis Wing) special secretary Samant Goel helped Asthana in the alleged extortion of money from Satish Sana (co-accused in the Qureshi case). The agency’s joint director Arun Sharma, a Gujarat cadre officer, was an old rival of Asthana. Sharma was deputed to file FIR against Asthana and probed the expenses incurred for his daughter’s wedding in Gujarat.

In the thick of the war between the first two in CBI in October 2018, Asthana wrote to the Cabinet Secretary on August 24 alleging that seven shell companies were associated with CBI joint director Arun Kumar Sharma in which his son, daughter and wife of a personal staff Ashwant Gupta were the directors.

The Grisly Face of the Behemoth

* Soon after taking charge as interim chief, Nageswara Rao on October 29 charged ‘some’ IPS officers with ‘skullduggery’ against him.  

* A week after the SC set a deadline of six months to complete the probe into the Aircel-Maxis case, journalist Upendra Rai filed a petition in the apex court (March 19) alleging amassing of disproportionate wealth by Enforcement Directorate joint director Rajeshwar Singh. On May 3, Rai was arrested by CBI for obtaining unauthorised entry into the airport. On June 5, another journalist Rajneesh Kapoor filed a petition similar to Rai’s in the apex court.  

* The Supreme Court on June 27 removed Rajeshwar Singh’s blanket protection against prosecution after the government submitted a RAW report stating that he was in touch with an ISI agent. The same day, ED director Karnal Singh comes out with support of Rajeshwar Singh. The same day, again, the latter accused Revenue Secretary Hansmukh Adhia of going to social media against him.  

*On October 22, CBI arrested DSP Devender Kumar for allegedly fabricating a statement of Satish Sana.  

Twenty two days after Alok Verma was ousted as CBI director, the PM-led panel appointed Rishi Kumar Shukla, a 1983 batch IPS cadre of Madhya Pradesh, as the new incumbent. Shukla, himself a controversial officer, was close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party establishment in MP and the new Congress regime removed him as state police chief. 

The Asthana case dragged on in the apex court as late as early 2021. After this setback, he had to contend with lesser assignments, like civil aviation security. The high court verdict on October 12 marks the final pre-retirement triumph for Asthana.

The writer is a Delhi-based veteran journalist who has been covering politics since the late 1970s. The views are personal. Some of the facts are reproduced for his book 'Tryst with Strong Leader Populism'. 

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