Verma ought to have been given an opportunity to appear before the panel and present his defence. The government should have also addressed the issue in the public domain. If the charges against the head of India’s premiere investigative agency are so grave and are seen to have prima facie merit, don’t the people have a right to know?
The ouster of Alok Verma from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) stands out for one thing: the breakneck pace at which it was done. It was the same urgency with which the government had acted during the midnight move which first divested Verma of his authority as chief of the investigating agency. It this inexplicable haste — or should we say seeming panic — that has thrown a giant cloud of suspicion over the government’s handling of the factional war within the CBI.
For argument’s sake, let us take no position on whether Verma is of unimpeachable reputation as his supporters and friends say or of questionable repute as the government argues. Whatever be the truth of the allegations against him, once the government was reprimanded by the judiciary for not following due procedure, surely more transparency with the public was called for the second time around? After the unilateralism of the initial decision to strip Verma of his authority was called out by the Supreme Court, it was incumbent upon the government to be more forthcoming about the reasons for which Verma has not been allowed to continue as head of the CBI.
To watch an officer reinstated (albeit conditionally), only to be pushed out again within 24 hours, is to wonder what the hurry is all about. This revolving door drama is in danger of turning into the Indian version of Trump Vs the FBI.
Even in terms of public perception, it is difficult to understand how this breathless, foot-on-accelerator race to get Verma out of his post, helps the BJP’s image. Earlier, whispers abounded that Verma was planning to move forward on the Rafale case, among others. On his table were also said to be files relating to other volatile cases: the Air Asia case; the Medical Admissions scam; and a complaint related to a high ranking bureaucrat. The dramatic in-again, out-again fortunes of Verma will only add to speculation that he was removed because the government had something to hide. Or that he was getting set for some sort of visible confrontation with the government. That Verma immediately reinstated the probe team investigating Rakesh Asthana ( the agency’s number 2 officer believed to be close to the BJP leadership), will also add to the narrative that this was a trigger for his removal.
Instead, at the very least, Verma ought to have been given an opportunity to appear before the panel and present his defence. The government should have also addressed the issue in the public domain. If the charges against the head of India’s premiere investigative agency are so grave and are seen to have prima facie merit, don’t the people have a right to know? And if he is of suspicious integrity, why is Verma the Director General of Fire Services? Or do corruption allegations matter for only one government post and not the other?
Equally, the Congress will have to contend with the fact that a sitting judge of the Supreme Court has endorsed the decision on Alok Verma. With this, the Opposition — which, ironically, had opposed Verma’s initial appointment — will find it tough to point fingers at the government without dragging the judiciary into the political battle. In fact, in some ways Verma’s removal was written into the very order of the Supreme Court that reinstated him. The court objected to the manner in which the government removed the CBI chief, bypassing the high powered panel it was obliged to conduct. But it also placed Verma back in office stripped of major powers. And by sending his case back to the panel, the court steered clear of whether the allegations against him were legitimate or not. This middling approach and walking of the tightrope made the verdict to bring Verma back way less cataclysmic than his supporters had hoped for. What the Opposition wanted to call a “blow to the government” by the court was, in the end, a mere rap on the wrist.
In election season, though, the voter will be less concerned with why the courts responded a certain way and more with the clash between the Modi government and different institutions. The Congress was often accused by the BJP of destroying the autonomy of institutions because of hubris and overreach. Now the BJP may be on the same slippery slope. In the last year, it has had unsavoury run-ins with the head of the Reserve Bank of India as well as the chief of the CBI. This can only add weight to accusation of statism and strong-arm tactics.
The bottomline: the CBI, once again, becomes a political football tossed around between competing interests. During the Congress years, the agency was infamously called a caged parrot. And on the BJP’s watch, the caged parrot remains in exactly the same shackles, but now its wings are clipped too.