After taking over on Tuesday night, M Nageswar Rao overhauled the team probing allegations of corruption against Asthana, bringing in completely new faces, officials said.
Feuding Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana have been divested of their powers and sent on leave, capping overnight discussions that led to the agency’s reins being handed to a joint director as an interim measure early on Wednesday.
It is the first such case in the history of the investigating agency, sources said as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told reporters that the government’s decision to remove the CBI’s two top officers was based on the Central Vigilance Commission’s recommendations.
Joint Director M Nageswar Rao, a 1986-batch Odisha cadre IPS officer, was appointed to look after the “duties and functions” of the director with “immediate effect” as an “interim measure”.
A late night order on Tuesday from the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent Verma and Asthana on leave.
On Tuesday evening, the CVC recommended after a meeting that Verma and Asthana be sent to leave and a Special Investigation Team be formed to probe the allegations against them.
An SIT will look into the charges and both officers will “sit out” the duration of the probe, Jaitley told reporters after a cabinet briefing, adding that they have been sent on leave as an interim measure.
He said it is absolutely essential to restore the agency’s institutional integrity and credibility.
The allegations by the top two officers of the country’s premier investigation agency had led to a “bizarre and unfortunate” situation, he said.
In a lengthy statement issued later in the day, the government claimed that Verma was not cooperating with the CVC.
It defended its decision to send him on leave, saying an “extraordinary and unprecedented” situation had arisen due to “grave allegations of corruption” against senior functionaries of the agency.
Immediately after taking charge, Rao effected the transfers of officers known to be close to the two officers.
He constituted a fresh team to probe an FIR against Asthana, registered by the agency on October 15 on the basis of a statement of a Sathish Sana alleging that he paid a bribe through middlemen to get clean chit in the case probed by the CBI.
The fresh team will have Superintendent of Police Satish Dagar and his senior Deputy Inspector General Tarun Gauba who will report to Joint Director V Murugesan, a CBI order said.
A K Bassi, who was probing the case against Asthana, was dispatched to Port Blair in “public interest” with immediate effect.
His reporting officer Additional SP S S Gurm was transferred to Jabalpur while supervisor DIG M K Sinha was moved to Nagpur, the order said.
The crucial position of joint director (policy) held by Asthana’s bete noire A K Sharma has been given to DIG Amit Kumar as additional charge. Sharma has been transferred to the Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency, probing former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination case.
Asthana has levelled serious allegations against Sharma and Bassi, claiming they were sent to Gujarat by Verma to Gujarat to gather material against him.
The additional charge of the Special Unit responsible for phone intercepts, in-house vigilance and surveillance has been given to K G Chaurasia, DIG, while incumbent Anish Prasad has been posted as deputy director (admin and personnel).
Joint Director A Sai Manohar, who was in Asthana’s team, has been transferred to Chandigarh.
The rapid overnight changes in the CBI attracted criticism from the Congress and other opposition parties.
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi alleged that Verma was forcibly sent on leave as he was collecting documents relating to the Rafale fighter jet ‘scam’.
“The prime minister’s message is very clear that whoever comes near Rafale (issue) will be removed, wiped out,” he alleged on Twitter.
The country and the Constitution are in danger, Gandhi claimed.
The government has removed Verma to control the premier agency and avoid the day of reckoning arising from “Rafale-o-phobia”, added Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi.
Jaitley, however, dismissed the allegations as “rubbish”.
Other opposition parties, including the Left parties, Aam Aadmi Party and Trinamool Congress, also spoke out.
“To ensure that the CBI is not a ‘caged parrot’, Supreme Court had granted protection to the Chief from govt’s whims and fancies by giving him a two-year tenure. What is Modi govt trying to hide by its panic move?” CPI-M general secretary Sitaram Yechury asked in a tweet.
Former officers of the agency on condition of anonymity said the situation is “unfortunate” and may affect cases related to the extradition of Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi.
In the wake of corruption allegations against the top officials of the agency, the accused may also plead that charges against them could be motivated, they said.
Gujarat cadre IPS officer Asthana was in charge of the SIT handling sensitive cases, including those related to Vijay Mallya loan default case, Agusta Westland helicopter deal bribery case and alleged corruption in land acquisition in Haryana.
Verma told the commission that Asthana’s role was under probe in at least six cases, including one related to the loan default by Gujarat-based Sterling Biotech.
IMAGE: Interim CBI chief M Nageswar Rao.