No matter how spinmeisters spin it, the Supreme Court’s order to reinstate Alok Verma as Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director is a tight rap on GoI’s knuckles. The court has set aside the October 23, 2018, order of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and GoI divesting Verma of his powers, and appointing M Nageswara Rao as the interim chief.
The apex court has added that Verma would not have the power to take major policy decisions till a high-powered committee that selects and appoints a CBI director takes a decision on the matter. They ordered that this committee, which comprises of the PM, the leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of India (CJI), be convened within a week and take a decision on the basis of a CVC inquiry against Verma, whose report had been given to the court in a sealed envelope in November.
Last October, GoI had, in a midnight action coordinated by National Security Adviser (NSA) A K Doval, sent both Verma and his deputy, Rakesh Asthana, on leave, saying that they had no option as the two officers were locked in a bitter feud. CBI had earlier booked Asthana as a prime accused in a bribery scandal.
Verma had challenged the order saying that it went against the rules that mandate a fixed tenure of two years for the CBI chief. An NGO, Common Cause, had also filed a petition against the government move.
The court’s view of the shoddy situation was evident from the fact that it asked a retired judge to supervise the CVC inquiry against Verma. Simultaneously, it had ordered that interim director Rao could not take any policy decisions. In essence, what the court has now done is to shore up CBI’s autonomy that it had established since the Vineet Narain judgment of 1997.
Key to this was the direction that the appointment and dismissal of the CBI chief take place as per the process of the law. In this case, it required the concurrence of the three-man committee, and this did not have any role for the CVC in it.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi stayed largely aloof from the controversies generated by the Asthana-Verma spat last year. This was despite the charge that Asthana, a Gujarat cadre officer, was a protégé of his. But, now, as the chair of the three-man committee that has to deal with the issue, he has the hot potato in his hands.
The issue is even more salient because of reports suggesting that Verma was removed because he was seeking to investigate the Rafale deal on the basis of a complaint submitted to CBI by Arun Shourie, Yashwant Sinha and Prashant Bhushan.
But the PM only has himself to blame for all this. GoI agencies have been misused in the past as well. But the track record of this government is arguably in a class of its own. The ‘coup’ against CBI had elements of arbitrariness as well as incompetence, a lethal combination.
Whether it is universities, the Right to Information (RTI) system, or even the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), we have seen convention — and even the law — being ignored so as to get it one’s way. Instead of using his considerable political authority to reform and restructure the economy and build institutions to modernise the country, Modi’s goal seems to have been a desire to shore up his personal authority and prestige.
Institutions like the Central Information Commission (CIC) have been made virtually comatose by leaving vacancies for information commissioners vacant. GoI has moved amendments to the RTI Act to undermine its autonomy. On the other hand, it has not hesitated to stake out powers to track the information of the ordinary citizen through a variety of administrative orders relating to phone and internet surveillance.
All this smacks of an arrogance that earlier led to ‘unilateral’ decisions like demonetisation in November 2016, and the Nepal blockade in 2015. Sadly, given the past experience, GoI will probably take all the wrong lessons from the Supreme Court’s rap. It may look for ways and means to undermine the judgment —as we see happening in the case of Aadhaar, where GoI is trying to amend the law to bypass a Supreme Court verdict.