By Ananya Bhardwaj
The unprecedented churn in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) over corruption allegations follows two years of hostilities between its top two officers, director Alok Verma and special director Rakesh Asthana.
As the officers trade allegations over who exactly colluded with meat exporter Moin Qureshi to extort money from suspects under investigation, ThePrint traces the genesis of the ugly battle and its various twists and turns.
Rakesh Asthana, a 1984-batch Gujarat cadre officer, is said to be close to BJP president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as both of them belong to Gujarat.
In the CBI, he has been involved in investigating some high-profile cases, like the Sabarmati Express fire in Godhra in 2002. As superintendent of police in the CBI, he also arrested Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav in the fodder scam in 1997.
Sources point out how Asthana secured the special director’s post despite concerns about his alleged role in a case of money laundering involving Sterling Biotech, whose owners, the Sandesaras, are said to have fled India after allegedly defaulting on loans of Rs 5,000 crore.
Asthana is currently being probed in six cases of corruption, which include two FIRs related to the Sterling Biotech case, two related to the arrest of journalist Upendra Rai, and one stemming from the recent CBI searches on a caterer at the Palika Services Officers’ Institute (PSOI) in Delhi.
In 2016, after Anil Sinha retired as CBI director, the Modi government reportedly ignored several senior batches to appoint Asthana as the acting director for a few months, which reportedly came as a surprise to many.
A 1979-batch UT cadre officer, Verma has served as Delhi Police commissioner and is said to be close to the Prime Minister and the government brass. This is believed to be the reason behind his selection as CBI director from among many contenders.
According to rules, the CBI director has to be compulsorily consulted before appointing any person above the rank of superintendent of police. However, in Asthana’s case, Verma’s objection was overruled.
The tiff between Asthana and Verma is, at its heart, an ego tussle. Asthana was the acting CBI director when Verma took office in 2016.
Once Verma stepped in, Asthana, an old CBI hand, is said to have started flexing his muscles and took decisions without keeping the director in the loop.
For instance, Asthana, investigating the IRCTC scam involving former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, started carrying out raids without informing Verma, which irked him. Asthana also began to represent the CBI at meetings with the Central Vigilance Commission, a supervisory agency for the CBI.
When his appointment as special director came up for clearance before the Central Vigilance Commission, Alok Verma is said to have flagged his alleged role in the Sterling case but his objection was overlooked.
The selection committee that approved his appointment as special director over Verma’s objections included CVC K.V. Chowdary, who has himself been under the scanner since his name surfaced in the Sahara-Birla diaries.
The fight worsened when Asthana once compiled a preference list for CBI appointments and forwarded it to the chief vigilance commissioner (CVC), a task typically performed by the director.
Not pleased, Verma made it clear that the job was his to perform.
In July this year, the CBI wrote to the Central Vigilance Commission that Asthana could not represent director Verma in his absence as he was being probed in several cases of corruption.
The letter stated that several officers being considered for induction by Asthana were under investigation in criminal cases filed by the CBI. It was alleged that Asthana used his powers to bypass Verma’s authority to induct officers of questionable integrity.
The Qureshi case
Moin Qureshi, a meat exporter arrested in August 2016, allegedly extorted money from suspects on behalf of CBI directors on the promise of relief from prosecution.
In one case, Qureshi is accused of extorting Rs 5.75 crore from a businessman.
An income tax raid against Qureshi in February 2014 revealed message exchanges with the then CBI director A.P. Singh, which led to the latter’s resignation as a member of the Union Public Services Commission, to which he was appointed after his retirement from the CBI.
The case that put Asthana in a tight spot
On 4 October, a Hyderabad-based businessman named Sana Satish — one of the suspects in the Moin Qureshi corruption case – alleged that he paid a hefty sum to CBI officers to get the agency off his back.
In his statement to a magistrate, he named Asthana, Dubai-based businessman Manoj Prasad, and Prasad’s relative Somesh.
Satish alleged that he paid Rs 3 crore to the three men over 10 months to remain off the CBI’s radar. He said he paid Rs 25 lakh to a middleman as recently as 9 October last year, at Prasad’s behest, to avoid appearing for questioning before the CBI.
Following this complaint, the CBI registered a case against Asthana as accused number one and a deputy superintendent of police-rank CBI officer, Devender Kumar, as well as the Prasad duo. Kumar has also been arrested.
In a letter to the vigilance commission, meanwhile, Asthana listed 10 cases where he alleged Verma tried to influence the investigation.
Asthana said Sana claimed to have paid a bribe of Rs 2 crore to Alok Verma to avoid any action by the CBI. He also alleged that when Sana was called in for questioning in February 2018, Verma restricted Asthana from examining him. He added that Verma also tried to influence the investigation in the IRCTC scam involving former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad, saying searches in the cases were called off at the last moment.
Other cases listed by Asthana in which Verma allegedly interfered include the coal block
‘I am being framed,’ Asthana tells CVC
In another letter to the CVC, Asthana has alleged that attempts were underway to falsely implicate him in certain cases.
He has alleged that the CBI director sent teams to Vadodara, Surat and Ahmedabad to dig out information against him, without the government’s permission, as is mandated by the Prevention of Corruption Act for investigations against a public servant of his rank.
“These acts of Alok Verma are illegal and mischievous,” Asthana wrote.
He alleged that despite his name not featuring in the Sterling Biotech FIR, “an officer of doubtful integrity”, Ajay Bassi, had been keeping a watch over him.
“He is said to be reporting directly to Verma, carrying out his instructions,” Asthana alleged.
He said Bassi and other officers had been assigned the task of “somehow” finding evidence to link him to the Sandesaras.
It has been alleged that the Sandesaras hosted the wedding of Asthana’s daughter at their farmhouse, and that the CBI special director’s name featured in a diary listing suspicious transactions that was recovered from a Sterling factory in 2011.
“In this regard, Bassi and one Ashwani Gupta are examining people in Vadodara and have sent notices for production of documents pertaining to expenditure related to marriage of my daughter, which took place in 2016, along with his guest list,” Asthana said.
Saying he was being framed, Asthana claimed that while the wedding was in 2016, the allegations in the Sterling FIR pertained to 2011.
In the letter, Asthana requested the CVC to constitute an SIT for a fair investigation in the cases against him.
Theory about A.K. Sharma
Another party in this fight is the CBI No. 3 — A.K. Sharma, a 1987-batch Gujarat cadre officer who serves as joint director in the investigation agency and was earlier the inspector general (intelligence) in Gujarat. He, too, is said to be close to Narendra Modi and a friend of Alok Verma.
Verma has reportedly given him several important investigations, apart from appointing him the head of the anti-corruption division. Asthana and Sharma both worked together in Gujarat. While Asthana was elevated to the post of special director, Sharma’s promotion is still due.
One of the theories about the CBI faceoff suggests that Sharma and Asthana developed a hostile relationship over their individual bids to curry favour with PM Narendra Modi, with a full-blown ego clash ensuing after Asthana’s elevation. Sharma, this theory suggests, encouraged Verma to go lead the fight against Asthana.
Time to rebuild India’s secularism
By Harsh Mander
There is much that lies badly broken in India today. The economy desperately needs to be repaired, as do rural distress, the job crisis and the free-falling rupee. The country’s institutions demand urgently to be rebuilt — the media, police, judiciary, universities, the planning process, the Election Commission of India. But above all, if there is one thing that stands most dangerously damaged, it is our constitutional pledge of a secular democracy. What are the prospects of rebuilding this?
Listen carefully to the speeches in the shrill summer election campaign which has just come to a halt. From their podiums, Opposition leaders spoke of everything else — the agony of farmers, unemployed youth, suspect defence deals, crony capitalism and indeed crony institutions. But rarely did they speak of lynching, of violence against Muslims, Christians and Dalits, of the fear which has become normalised in their daily lives, of our wrecked social contract of equality and harmony. And never did they speak of secularism.
The imagination of secularism in the Indian Republic was rooted in its singularly pluralist civilisational ethos, in the lives and work of Ashoka and Akbar, in the teachings of Buddha, Kabir and Nanak. It was illuminated by our struggle for freedom, in the humanist and egalitarian convictions of Gandhi and Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and Nehru. It was the central iridescent idea: that this newly-freed country would belong equally to all its people. People of no religion, no language, no caste, no ethnicity, no gender, no class would be entitled to lay claim to the country more than any other.
Secularism is the soul of India’s Constitution. Today the letter of this Constitution still remains unaltered, but its soul is mangled and choked. Not just the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); even Opposition parties seem to have accepted that India is no longer the secular country born of the legacy of India’s freedom struggle, but a majoritarian Hindu country. In this new India, people of minority religions, castes and gender are second-class. Their safety and well-being are dependent now on the consent and will of the majority upper-caste, patriarchal Hindu, and the dictates of this Hindu are interpreted and violently mediated by the ideology of Hindutva.
It is a grave mistake to frame the 2019 general election as a battle of Narendra Modi against the rest. This is how Prime Minister Modi, referring to himself repeatedly in the third person, has framed this bitter electoral contest. This is how the Opposition has fought the electoral battle, of Mr. Modi versus the rest. This is how the majority of Indian voters view this combat.
However, the electoral battle waged around the country is truly a different one. On one side stands the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and on the other is the secular idea of the Indian Constitution. Mr. Modi is a formidable, pugnacious, tireless and immensely popular mascot of the Hindu supremacist ideology of the RSS; and his image is powerfully buttressed by a pliant corporate media and dizzying levels of spending on a public relations blitz to manufacture consent. But the central danger to secular India is not the personality of Mr. Modi. It is the penetration of the RSS into every institution of the country, into every political party, the media, the university, the judiciary, the civil services, and most dangerously into mainstream everyday social life of every ordinary Indian.
In the RSS worldview, Muslims and Christians are not authentically Indian, their loyalty to the Indian nation is and will always remain suspect; therefore, they need to be tamed, to be continuously shown their subordinate status in the Indian polity and society. It is for this reason that virulent hate speech was so central to this election campaign, with Mr. Modi mocking his rival, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, for seeking election in a constituency in which he would have to depend in part on Muslim and Christian voters; and other BJP leaders and candidates raging against the threats of the ‘green virus’ and ‘termites’. It is for this reason that BJP president Amit Shah pledges to extend the National Register of Citizens to all parts of India, while ensuring citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists from other parts of the subcontinent; in this way brazenly turning on its head the core constitutional idea that a person’s religion is irrelevant to her rights to equal citizenship. And it is for this reason that lynching of Muslims and attacks on Christian places of worship, openly valorised by ruling party leaders, became the overarching symbols of the newly forged relationship of the majoritarian Hindu state with its now inferior religious minorities.
If Mr. Modi is returned with an emphatic majority when ballots are counted on May 23, as many exit polls predict, this will herald that India has fallen deep into a cold hard place of hate and fear. It will signal that a significant majority of Hindus endorse the Hindu supremacist ideology of the RSS. It will indicate the popular abandonment of the secular and humane vision of India’s Constitution, and its replacement by a violent and chauvinist majoritarian Hindu nationalism, which is suspicious and hateful in its relations with people who follow minority religious faiths. This outcome would also further imperil all left, liberal and democratic dissenting voices, in civil society, in the media, in universities, and in letters and the arts.
A second scenario, anticipated by a much smaller number of political commentators, is of reduced support for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), its tally falling short of the half-way mark. In such a situation, they anticipate the possibility that many regional parties could be persuaded to support an NDA government only if it is led by a less belligerent leader than Mr. Modi, possibly Nitin Gadkari or Rajnath Singh. Many are relieved by the possibility of such an outcome: anyone other than Mr. Modi would be welcome, they reason. But it would be a dangerous mistake to believe that such a choice would pull India out of the dark abyss into which it has slipped. Even with a more acceptable face, as with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the RSS would use political power to further penetrate all institutions, and enfeeble what survives of secular practice.
The least expected scenario, of the victory of the United Progressive Alliance or a federal front of regional parties, cannot be ruled out yet. After all, the BJP has lost no exit polls since 2004, but it lost many elections. However, even with such an outcome, the crusade against secular democracy waged with such vigour by the RSS will not be won. The appetite and moral courage to fight majoritarian politics head-on stands perilously weakened among Opposition political parties. Whatever the final outcome, this fight to salvage, defend and fortify secularism will have to be fought by the Indian people. India is today a wasteland of compassion. It will take generations to clean out the toxins of hate from Indian society. It is a battle that must be waged with courage, with perseverance and with love. History in the end is on our side.
The politician and the machine
By SY Quraishi
The general elections 2019 is moving towards closure, with six out of seven phases already over. All eyes are now on the counting.
It is not surprising that the issue of counting of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) has become hot once again.
The decision to introduce VVPATs as a measure to make electronic voting machines (EVMs) transparent was taken in 2010 when a meeting of all political parties arrived at a consensus that this was the ultimate answer.
Finding the suggestion reasonable, the Election Commission (EC) immediately accepted it and asked the two EVM manufacturers, BEL and ECIL, to design the VVPAT machines. An independent committee of experts consisting of five professors from different IITs was tasked to oversee the design and the manufacturing process.
A series of trials were held, followed by a full-day election simulation in July 2011 in five climatically diverse cities– namely Cherrapunji, Delhi, Jaisalmer, Leh, and Thiruvananthapuram.
Since many bugs were noticed, the trial was repeated after addressing them in July 2012 at exactly the same places. Only after making sure that they were technologically sound and climatically dependable, were the VVPATs initially deployed in 20,000 polling booths successfully. Subsequently, all constituencies were equipped with VVPATs.
In 2013, the Supreme Court also lauded the EC’s decision to use VVPATs and directed the government to release adequate funds for their procurement for the 2019 elections. The machines that kept coming in were randomly deployed. From 2017 onwards, all state elections have been conducted with EVMs attached with VVPATs.
What was the counting procedure? Slips generated by one VVPAT in each assembly constituency were counted. Of the 1,500 machines counted so far, according to the EC, not a single mismatch was found.
In various elections, however, many VVPAT machines malfunctioned. The chief election commissioner (CEC) righty clarified that malfunctioning is different from rigging.
During the by-elections in Bihar and UP, and the Karnataka assembly elections last year, VVPAT glitches resulted in machine replacement rates of 4 to 20 per cent.
These were largely due to issues in the print unit, which is sensitive to weather. With hardware changes introduced in the machines, the glitches came down to 2 per cent for the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections.
While the debate is going on, I had offered an out-of-the-box solution: Let the top two runners up in every constituency choose any two VVPATs to be counted. As they have the highest stake in the results, they will choose the ones they are most suspicious about.
This is analogous to the Decision Review System in the game of cricket, in which two referrals are allowed for each team. Ever since its introduction, violent disputes about the controversial decisions taken by the umpire have all but disappeared.
This would do away with a large random sample being demanded at present, as only four machines will have to be counted per constituency. In case any mismatch is detected, all machines in the constituency must be counted.
In March, as many as 21 opposition parties moved the Supreme Court demanding that 50 per cent of the total slips be tallied. The SC asked the Commission to increase the sample size of the tally from one booth per assembly constituency to five assembly segments of each Lok Sabha constituency “for better voter confidence and credibility of electoral process”.
The court said that the move will ensure the “greatest degree of accuracy and satisfaction” in the electoral process.
On April 24, the same 21 parties approached the SC again with a review petition, citing concerns related to the first two phases of polling and the “unreliability” of the EVMs.
On May 7, it was turned down with the court saying that “we are not inclined to modify our order”.
I wonder how these parties expected the apex to review its decision, which was taken after great deliberation, when no new facts had emerged justifying the return to the court.
Surprisingly, the issue which should have been discussed and debated is still unattended: What happens if the VVPAT count doesn’t match the EVM count? Even one mismatch is enough to create doubts about the other machines as well.
The current provision is that if there is a mismatch, the VVPAT will prevail. This is fine if the mismatch corresponds to the figures of the mock poll, which have not been deleted.
In all other mismatch cases, perhaps all machines in the constituency should then be counted. The apex court has called for “better voter confidence and credibility of the electoral process.”
If it takes time, so be it. After all, that was the purpose behind the introduction of VVPATs. This can be tried out on a pilot basis. There may not be many such cases, if at all, as evident from the experience of 1,500 machines, which didn’t throw up any mismatches, but public confidence will be ensured.
The Commission may convene an all-party meeting, yet again, as concerns are serious and the stakes extremely high. My experience in dealing with political parties is that with open-minded dialogue, consensus does emerge. Clarity of procedures is required before the counting day approaches. Time is running out.
(Writer is former chief election commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder- the Making of the Great Indian Election.)
Main Hoon Na!
By Chitra Padmanabhan
Clacking away at the computer keyboard, I heard a tapping sound on the window. It was good old Birdie looking as if she was bursting to tell me something. “I have flown all the way from the abode of Shiva in the Himalayas,” she said, “to tell you about the drama that unfolded there yesterday.”
Curbing my curiosity – it was a long way off from the Garhwal Himalayas to Delhi – I placed a bowl of water and a plate of millets before her. Atithi devo bhava (the visitor is like god), after all.
After a few minutes during which she gave the refreshments her undivided attention, Birdie began chirping: “A few nights ago there was frenetic activity in the forest. It was not the harbinger of an earthquake to come, just the anticipation of an exciting event to liven things up. News had filtered in that there was going to be a full-fledged film shooting around the temple of Shiva. None other than the great actor of Bharatvarsha was scheduled to come and deliver the performance of a lifetime.”
“So, what happened?” I asked breathlessly.
Birdie warbled: “It was fascinating. Total pro that he is, actor saheb kept experimenting with different face angles to see which one the camera liked the most. People call Aamir Khan a method actor, but yeh to uska bhi baap nikla (he was miles ahead of Aamir). It was not just face angles that he focused on; he went down to the last detail, such as what should be the exact set of his shoulders as he walked towards the shrine. In fact, he told the unit to do some seriously complex calculations to arrive at the exact angle.”
But why, I wanted to know.
In an awed tone Birdie recited word for word what actor saheb said: “I should be seen to be somewhat humble as I approach the god but not so humble as to appear like the indistinguishable mass of pleading supplicants. I am the best, after all, and I have my image to consider. I need to look like a realised soul who has been on a spiritual journey for decades to be the saintly actor that I am, capable of making the masses and classes forget their troubles with just a sideway glance.”
According to what Birdie told me, the entire unit, from the director to the humble gofer, speechlessly nodded. They had been witness to his temper – he had entered his vanity van for a makeover and had come out holding the make-up artiste by the scruff of his neck, saying, “Do I pay you to show the shadows under my eyes?” On top of that it seems he had given explicit instructions that he should be shown as taller than the mountains in every frame.
I was impatient to know about the scene that the actor was going to shoot but I bided my time as Birdie nibbled on some biscuit crumbs.
Fortified, she continued: “Do you remember the film Main Hoon Na in which Shah Rukh Khan starts hearing violins every time his eyes alight on Sushmita Sen? Well, they were preparing for a similar scene here. The actor was wearing the ochre/saffron costume of an ascetic for the shot. The director went through the details with his team one last time: ‘As saheb starts walking towards the shrine, the entire area will come alive with a song sung to the lord, Rang de tu mohe gerua (drench me in ochre/saffron), the colour symbolising asceticism and devotion of the highest kind.’” Apparently, the actor told the unit to do what it had to do to ensure that his head and the shikhar of the temple were at the same level.
There was a long pause, as if Birdie was playing the scene in her mind, and not liking it too much. I, on the other hand, was agog to know more.
Finally Birdie spoke in a small voice: There was a terrible mix-up and the wrong song was played. It was not the sonorous ‘Rang de tu mohe gerua’ that reverberated through the Himalayas but the following lines:
Raja ho ya rank
Yahan to sab hain chowkidar
Kuch to aa kar chale gaye
Kuch jaane ko tayyar
(King or pauper,
Everyone’s just a caretaker in this world, keeping time
Some have come and gone
And some are on the verge of going
As the philosophical song played in those pristine environs, all hell broke loose. The spiritual expression that the actor had mustered with great effort came apart at the seams. In its place emerged the ugly face of hubris that he, a king among men, should be told, albeit mistakenly, that his reign was coming to an end. The line between the actor and the role had completely blurred. Maybe his reaction had something to do with the fact that there were new actors on the block.
Meanwhile the unit members took shelter behind any rock they could find and waited for saheb to cool down. After making doubly sure that they had the right soundtrack the director prepared to shoot the scene again. This time it was indeed the mellifluous Rang de tu mohe gerua that brought the place alive.
I asked Birdie about the expression on the actor’s face.
She was thoughtful: “People say a good actor is aware of the camera but knows that it is his conviction about the role and his craft that sees him through. He is oblivious of the camera at that time. That day I realised that the camera is ruthless; it is quick to smoke out any false note.”
I broke the flow of her reverie: “Are you saying the great actor lacked the skill?”
Birdie hummed and hawed: “Listen, I don’t want this story coming back to bite me. Let me just say that for all his ‘I am the lion of the jungle’ demeanour, actor saheb was so conscious of who he was and of the camera that he ended up playing an actor trying to be humble in the most arrogant manner. Moreover, the state-of-the-art cameras are so cruel that let alone trace the slightest ripple of tension in the muscles, they can even capture the anxiety flowing in the actor’s blood.
I asked: “Is that what the camera showed that day?”
Birdie nodded: “The camera showed an actor so loath to free himself of his grandiose image, so stressed out at the thought that he would be judged by the audience that he lost his nerve. So he abandoned the fiction genre and decided to shoot a documentary. He had the camera follow him, the great actor, or abhineta, on a personal journey the likes of which were undertaken by the ancient rishis of Bharatvarsha. “
I consoled Birdie, saying that there would be other film shootings, other actors.
She said: “All that is fine, but it seemed to me that the ‘documentary’ made by actor saheb was far more fictitious than any fiction film could have been. Give me Shah Rukh Khan any day!”
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