Central Bureau of Investigation, India. Photo: Twitter
Central Bureau of Investigation, India. Photo: Twitter

A furious war has broken out in India’s top anti-corruption investigative body, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), threatening to deeply embarrass Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The man in the middle of the raging controversy, Rakesh Asthana, is the second most important official in the CBI and a personal favorite of the prime minister, who backed his appointment at the agency.

But Asthana’s appointment, which came under controversial circumstances, led to a major conflict with the top boss, Alok Verma, the current agency head.

The CBI is equivalent to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation in many ways. Verma has cleared a major anti-corruption investigation and even filed a first information report (FIR) on October 15 naming Asthana as the key accused.

CBI headquarters were abuzz on Monday when officials raided the offices of Asthana and a deputy. This is the first time that the agency has had to carry out a raid against one of its own senior officials in its own premises.

This has also led to the one of the senior-most officials in India’s external intelligence agency, Samant Kumar Goel, also being named by the CBI in the FIR. While he has not been cited as an accused, his role in a number of graft cases is being probed. Goel is currently the fifth-highest official in the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), which deals with external intelligence.

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The case against Asthana was registered based on a complaint by a Hyderabad based businessman, Sana Sathish Babu. He claimed that two brothers based in Dubai – Manoj Prasad and Somesh Prasad – were acting on behalf of Asthana when they struck a deal for Rs 50 million (US$ 678,588) in exchange for protection in a case that the CBI registered against controversial meat exporter Moin Qureshi.

The case dates back to 2014 when the Income Tax Department raided Qureshi’s office. The case also involved former CBI director AP Singh, who was subsequently forced to resign. The CBI then registered the case against Qureshi in February 2017, after which it was handed over to the Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by Asthana. In March 2017, Qureshi was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act and accused of laundering money for public servants.

However, the Hyderabad based businessman pointed the finger at Asthana and investigating officer in the case Devender Kumar, accusing them of trying to suppress the case against Qureshi in exchange for money.

In his statement Sana gave a detailed account of how he paid about Rs 30 million ($407,251) in 2017 to get relief from receiving frequent notices for examination by CBI. Following this, no notices were issued to him until February 2018, after which the Dubai brothers contacted him again and asked for another Rs 20 million ($271,926) for further relief.

Manoj Prasad was arrested by the CBI when he came to India to collect the new demand. They also arrested Devender Kumar on the charge of “falsification of records”. In a statement the CBI said that Kumar had fabricated the statement by Sana Sathish Babu saying that it was recorded on September 26, 2018 in Delhi.

But the investigation revealed that he was in Hyderabad on the said date and only joined the probe on October 1. “It was found that Kumar had fabricated the statement as an afterthought to corroborate the baseless allegations made by Asthana against CBI director to the CVC [Central Vigilance Commission].” The statement was actually recorded on October 3.

Asthana had accused CBI director Alok Verma of interfering in the corruption case involving former railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav and of stopping searches investigating the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation scam. However, the Bureau issued a statement saying, “The allegation of preventing raids against the accused in the IRCTC case is absolutely false. The investigation of the case has resulted in filing a charge sheet before the designated court. This could not have been possible without the explicit approval of the director (of the) CBI.”

Controversy is nothing new to Asthana. He is currently being investigated in six cases including accepting bribes from the controversial Sandesara Group and the jailed journalist-cum-fixer Upendra Rai. The CBI had also written to the CVC in July this year stating that Asthana was using his position to induct officers of questionable integrity in the absence of the CBI director and should not be given this role as he was under scrutiny related to various corruption cases.

Earlier, Asthana’s appointment as special director of the CBI was also challenged in court due to his alleged involvement in the 2011 Sandesara Group scam which is being investigated over money laundering. A diary seized by the bureau mentioned Asthana and an alleged payment of Rs 38 million ($516,462) made to him. But the Supreme Court refrained from interfering and gave Asthana the benefit of the doubt.

It was also reported that Verma had objected to Asthana’s appointment but the selection committee bypassed the CBI director’s consultation which is compulsory under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act.

It is said that because of Asthana’s proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi he was elevated to this position despite objections by the CBI director. According to a report by The Wire,  Asthana was allegedly influencing a coal scam case at the CBI in which the name of Bhaskar Khulbe – a West Bengal cadre IAS officer who is now one of the most trusted aides of Modi – had come up. Asthana is said to have taken a stance that Khulbe should be made a witness rather than an accused in the case.

“As secretary in the PMO, he (Khulbe) is one of Narendra Modi’s most trusted aides. He handles all transfers and postings of Central officials, working closely with P.K. Mishra, additional principal secretary to the prime minister,” The Wire report said. Hence, Mishra, also of the Gujarat cadre, made sure that the selection committee unanimously appointed Asthana to the post of special director in the CBI.

On Monday, CBI director Alok Verma met with Modi to brief him about the allegations leveled against Rakesh Asthana. Modi reportedly asked Verma to “let the law take its own course”. It is likely that Verma will recommend the suspension of Asthana.

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