Kilkenny cat fight between top two officers severely dented CBI's reputation

Rajnish Singh

New Delhi, Dec 29 (IANS) The CBI saw the worst crisis in its over 70-year hisotry in 2018 as the bitter acrimony between its top two officers -- akin to a Kilkenny cat fight -- led to a public showdown, intervention by the central government and legal cases as the country's investigative agencies remained on their toes chasing frauds and fugitives.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) were also involved in handling some politically sensitive cases, including thse of former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and Congress President Rahul Gandhi's brother-in-law Robert Vadra.

A series of bank loan defaults kept the CBI busy for much of the year. It began on January 31 when the agency started a probe against diamantaire Nirav Modi and his uncle Mehul Choksi for defrauding Mumbai's Brady House branch of the Punjab National Bank of a staggering Rs 13,500 crore during 2011-17 by illegally issuing Letters of Undertaking and Foreign Letters of Credit.

As both the businessmen had left India before the CBI started its investigations, the agency, along with the ED managed, to managed to get Red Corner notices against them. Choksi's location was initially traced to Antigua and the CBI has been attempting to get him extradited.

In the midst of all this December 4 was a positive moment for the CBI when it, with the central government's help, secured the extradition from the United Arab Emirates of British national Christian Michel, the middlemen in the Rs 3,600 crore AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal.

The CBI scored another success when a British court ordered the extradition of industrialist Vijay Mallya, who fled India in March 2016 over a Rs 9,000-crore bank loan fraud.

However, in spite of these two successes, the CBI found it hard to remove the blot on its reputation due to bitter fight between its Director, Alok Verma, and his second-in-command, Rakesh Asthana as they hurled corruption charges against each other. This prompted the government to send both officers on forced leave, the first time this has happened since the CBI's inception in 1941.

The CBI Joint Director, M. Nageshwara Rao, was named its interim director.

In a first of sorts, the CBI registered a case against Asthana for allegedly accepting a Rs 3 crore bribe to settle a case against meat exporter Moin Quereshi. On his part, Asthana levelled bribery allegations in more than a dozen cases against his boss.

The ugly fight within the CBI became a political potboiler, with opposition parties pointing fingers at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for institutional decay. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi hit out at the Prime Minister, calling the CBI "an institution in terminal decline that's at war with itself".

The CBI is now facing a biggest credibility crisis as the interim Director is not authorised to take any policy decisions affecting most of its cases.

A former CBI Director, on condition of anonymity, told IANS that the turmoil severely impacted the agency's functioning.

"The fight between top two CBI officers really impacted the agency. But it is for a short period. There will not be longer impact on its functioning as it is a very professional organisation. Things will go like this until a new Director takes charge of the agency. As the agency has been divided in two groups, one supporting Alok Verma and other Rakesh Asthana, there is some bitterness. But the work is going on.

"The CBI managed to extradite Christian Michel," he pointed out.

Lawyer Prashant Bhushan said it was a serious crisis squarely brought on by the government. "Asthana was pushed through despite the Director pointing out that they are investigating a case against him. He seems to be very close to Modi and (BJP President)Amit Shah. The CBI is today used for political purposes against political opponents. The agency should not be under the administrative control of the government."

A former Police Commissioner, requesting anonymity, said the murky war has damaged the image of the CBI and this needs to be restored by sacking both the two officers. "The controversy has an impact not only on CBI's reputation but also on PM's image. Today, the government has to face the flak for the mistake."

So grave is the situation that Verma has put his own government in the dock.

Verma, whose tenure as CBI Director ends on January 31, presented a plea in the Supreme Court against the centre's decision - raising the question whether the government can remove him inside the two-year fixed tenure of a CBI chief without the acquiescence of the committee that appointed him.

The government has clarified that the action was taken as an interim measure since Verma and Asthana were "fighting like Kilkenny cats".

The Supreme Court has reserved its order in the case and has observed that the CBI Director must continue in his post for two years.

And, with the rift at the top overshadowing its investigations, the CBI organised a three-day Art of Living synergy programme to improve positivity and generate a healthy atmosphere in the agency.

(Rajnish Singh can be contacted at rajnish.s@ians.in)

--IANS

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