In the eerily early hours of 24th October 2018, the Modi government executed one of its most blatant attacks on the Indian democracy. They divested CBI director Alok Verma along with special director Rakesh Asthana "of all powers" claiming that the ongoing feud between them was threatening the integrity of the institution.
To provide some background to the feud: Asthana’s name had cropped up in a high-profile corruption case as early as August 2017, and he was appointed Special Director later in October 2017 by the Modi Government despite strong opposition by then-Director Verma due to Asthana’s alleged corruption. This started a power tussle within the CBI with both Verma and Asthana alleging corruption against the other, and Verma investigating Asthana and Asthana complaining about Verma to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC).
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In reality however, the entire situation started to go nuclear in October 2018 when prominent lawyer Prashant Bhushan and former ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha met Verma, asking for a probe into alleged corruption in the Rafale aircraft deal and offset contract where Anil Ambani got illegal commissions. The trio of Bhushan, Shourie and Sinha filed a detailed complaint with documents buttressing their argument for the need of a probe under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
Reports claimed that the government was 'unhappy' with the events unfolding in the CBI. Things only worsened when Asthana was officially booked by the CBI in a bribery case, and another officer arrested while Verma requested the Defense ministry to authenticate the documents related to the Rafale deal.
With the ground shrinking beneath his feet, PM Modi in a coup like attempt, unconstitutionally removed Verma from his position, and for good measure, Asthana as well claiming that their feud was threatening the credibility of the institution while it was actually PM Modi’s fear of what Verma could find if he looked too closely at the documents of the Rafale deal.
The net effect of the Prime Minister’s action was that the upper echelons of the CBI were virtually dismantled as the major investigation teams were dissolved, with officers transferred to far off places like the Andamans and the CBI building sealed.
More drama unfolded as Verma moved the Supreme Court against his removal, and while the Supreme Court held his removal as unconstitutional and restored him as director, in a blow to the Prime Minister, it also referred Verma’s fate to a high-powered selection committee comprised of the Prime Minister, the leader of opposition and a representative of the Chief Justice of India as per the law.
PM Modi, without wasting a second in fear of what could happen with Verma reinstated in the CBI, convened the committee immediately and got Verma removed again from his position. Half-baked reports of the CVC alleging corruption against Verma were presented in the committee, however without any substantial evidence, as noted by the Leader of Opposition, Mallikarjun Kharge, in his dissent note opposing the removal of Verma.
It must be noted here that even Justice A K Patnaik, the retired Supreme Court judge who was asked to supervise the CVC enquiry that eventually led to the ouster of Verma, said that there was “no evidence of corruption” against Verma, and “what the CVC says cannot be the final word”. He was critical of “the very, very hasty” decision of the PM-led committee to remove Verma from the CBI Director’s post, merely two days after he was reinstated by the Supreme Court.
What was the hurry for in the decision to sack Verma without giving him a proper hearing? Why couldn’t Verma be allowed to continue his constitutional duties for just another 3 weeks? What is the Prime Minister afraid of? Is it safeguarding the integrity of the institution as he so claims or is it the Rafale deal which he cannot afford to be looked too closely at?
These are questions that must be answered by the government of the day, which has somehow made it a habit to attack independent institutions for political gain. From the Reserve Bank of India to the Central Bureau of Investigation; from the University Grants Commission to the Judiciary, PM Modi has left no stone unturned to prove that he will not tolerate any form of dissent against him from any institution. Is this the hallmark of a democracy or a autocracy?
Make no mistake, these incidents are part of a larger attack on the very foundations of the Indian Democracy, which is facing an unprecedented crisis due to the Modi governments actions. Our democratic institutions and traditions are under siege from the government of the day and we need to do everything we can to fight back.