How is the current battle in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) going to pan out and affect the 2019 polls to elect a new Parliament? This is a million-dollar question dogging the country. Both informed and not so informed among the electorate wait with baited breath as the Government and Opposition parties continue to spar against each other before the Supreme Court makes its next move in the case related to the CBI. The case is to be heard again by a three-judge SC bench after Diwali break, on November 12.
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The vexed issue of the CBI has shown indications to drag on a bit more. Another petition by CBI’s Deputy Superintendent of Police AK Bassi against his transfer to Port Blair and other related issues have been moved before the court on October 30. Bassi has also made certain WhatsApp messages and phone calls related to a corruption case against CBI’s Special Director Rakesh Asthana public on Tuesday though the top court is yet to look into them.
Moreover, CBI’s officiating Director M Nageswar Rao has issued a statement refuting reports regarding certain investments made by his wife Mannem Sandhya in a Kolkata-based firm Angela Mercantile Private Limited. Rao in his statements said that the sum that changed hands between the firm and his wife started with a loan in 2010 to buy a property at Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. This was eventually repaid to the firm by Sandhya by selling her ancestral agricultural land. And, thus, there should be no reason to believe reports emanating from media outlets.
Whatever may be the case with the latest disclosures by the top brass of the CBI, it was only last week that the bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi stopped short of striking down the forced leave, or exile, slapped on the two top officials - Director Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana in the premier agency that serves as a watchdog and probes cases of corruption in high places among other things. And it is only because of the court orders that Rao continues to be CBI chief though temporarily since October 23 and with greatly restricted powers, courtesy the court’s intervention on October 26.
The apex court’s last Friday’s orders also gave the Government a little breather to re-strategise. As for the Opposition it got an opportunity to keep the clamour up over what it calls to be bizarre goings on in the CBI for some more time.
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This is so since stakes for both sides are heavily stacked in view of the next year’s elections and who blinks first may well decide among other things the fate and outcome of the polls. The reason for this has often been indicated by the Opposition for it has been alleging since even before the present crisis erupted in the CBI that the Government loved to use it as a virtual “weapon” to fix or silence opponents, critics and dissenters with the intent of forcing some of them to either fall in line with the Government, or tone down attack on the ruling conglomerate that includes the larger Sangh fraternity as also allies in the National Democratic Alliance.
So the question now is: Can the present crisis blunt this hatchet, whether actual or perceived, which is supposed to be in the hands of the Government as a veritable arsenal?
The political overtones through the present round of battle in the CBI which has only been escalating for past week or so have been palpable since quite before it broke out into the open for all to see. Verma and Asthana could never get along despite the fact that both have been dealing with important and sensitive cases, including those that were heavily political in nature.
So much so that close on the heels of Verma’s moving before the Supreme Court a petition was filed by Common Cause, an NGO, to seek redress as a complaint seeking investigation in a defence-related deal was left to wait amid fight between the two top cops of the CBI. The NGO has also been indicating both before and after October 26 hearing in the apex court by justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph alongside the Chief Justice that Verma was shunted out though temporarily alongside Asthana to thwart a probe sought through the impugned complaint.
Whether Verma would have ordered the probe thus sought for or not is difficult to be guessed. More so since the Government preferred to be silent about this despite the Opposition’s open accusations against the Government in this respect.
So Verma’s exit in what is described as a “midnight coup” is hogging the limelight as if this was resorted to thwart the probe into the defence deal. The Government on its part has said that it has handed over the relevant details of the deal to the Supreme Court under a sealed cover. Yet, the political fallout of such an allegation based on the charge that Verma was sent on forced leave to preempt a probe into the deal can well be huge.
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There have been many more politically important cases in CBI’s closet on the night of October 23 and 24 morning when it saw large-scale changes which are called in police circles as a virtual bloodbath.
Asthana too has been looking after cases related to the family members of RJD, or Rashtriya Janata Dal, leader Laloo Yadav, AgustaWestland helicopter deal under the previous, United Progressive Alliance, Government and the famous case of business tycoon Vijay Mallya who fled to London amid recovery notices from banks and creditors for huge amounts.
It was in the backdrop of such cases, though the list of them is even longer, that the war between Verma and Asthana broke out, turning the CBI into a virtual war zone through the night of October 23-24. This has sadly been so despite the fact that the Supreme Court through its many decrees has tried to insulate the CBI from political pressure and minimise the influence of the political masters to make the crucial agency fair and independent.
Thus, the reality is that the efforts of the highest court in the past to keep the CBI off from politics and its higher ups away from politicos’ pressure turned out to be woefully short with the result that it became a virtual political battle ground. There can be myriad reasons behind this. Yet, the main among them is ineptness with which the agency has lately been looked after by the powers-that-be and the way the top echelons of the once highly trusted agency have been selected and appointed in recent times.
So the task to cleanse the CBI of bad influences and other ills has once again fallen into the realm of the Supreme Court. But the fact is that alongside the court’s decisions the ball is also soon going to move onto the people’s court. And before the public gives its verdict by next summer through its vote the rival parties are going to play out their version of the CBI’s sordid story to the hilt.
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Indeed, the future of the CBI depends, among other things, on the collective wisdom of the electorate. It is becoming quite clear since the political class has been willfully and often deliberately making the CBI a virtual pawn to settle scores in its petty battles; so much so that this has pushed the CBI into a deep existential crisis.