The James Comey of India Goes Rogue
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Low-profile law enforcement official Alok Verma could damage Narendra Modi’s re-election.
The 2 am letter to Alok Verma was clear. The Indian government had sacked Verma, the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the country’s top investigative agency, which boasts many of the same powers as America’s FBI. Citing an ongoing spat between Verma and his second-in-command, Rakesh Asthana, the government in the wee hours of Oct. 24 asked both to stay at home while another agency probed corruption allegations the two had leveled against each other.
If Prime Minister Narendra Modi thought his top cop would go quietly, he was wrong — and the fallout threatens a halo Modi has carefully built for himself as his re-election campaign steams ahead.
First thing the next morning, 61-year-old Verma petitioned India’s Supreme Court to overturn his removal, alleging that the government’s decision “violated his fundamental rights and amounted to a blot on the CBI’s independence.” Just 20 days before his ouster, Verma had met lawyer Prashant Bhushan and former minister Arun Shourie, who shared documents that they claim point to corruption in a $9 billion deal under which French firm Dassault is to sell 36 Rafale fighter jets to India. Modi, they alleged, had changed the deal to insist that Dassault had to pick a specific Indian tycoon, Anil Ambani, as a partner.
The government has denied the allegations, but the opposition Indian National Congress party and its leader, Rahul Gandhi, have made it a centerpiece of their campaign against Modi. For four decades as a police officer, Verma had preferred to avoid any public glare. Now, he is at the heart of a political slugfest over the squeaky-clean personal image Modi has carefully cultivated. In ways similar to former FBI chief James Comey, who has taken on President Donald Trump since he was fired, Verma could embarrass Modi five months before the world’s largest democratic exercise: India’s national elections.
“The midnight operation and the unseemly hurry to remove him was because he had possibly just started the process of investigating the Rafale deal,” says Bhushan, the lawyer. “And that is what really alarmed the government.”
Even out of office, Verma — and what secrets he might spill — represents a ticking time bomb for the Modi government.
Like Comey, whom Trump initially tried to woo, Verma and the Modi government started off well. Ironically, it was the Congress party that had opposed Verma’s appointment in the first place in January 2017, arguing that he didn’t have any prior experience in the agency.
And Trump’s insistence on personal loyalty from career government professionals is of a piece with what CBI veterans say has been the ever-growing politicization of the Indian agency. The CBI traces its roots to the 1941 founding of the Special Police Establishment, where officers quickly distinguished themselves in tackling corruption cases. Back then, the agency’s independent probes led to resignations of post-independence stalwarts, including finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari and finance secretary H.M. Patel, recalls Shantonu Sen, a former joint director of the CBI. But for two decades now, says Sen, the agency’s credibility has taken a beating as successive governments have encroached on its independence, demanding loyalty. And now, he says, “We have reached rock-bottom.” That extends to Verma’s interim replacement, former CBI Joint Director M. Nageshwar Rao, a Modi favorite and champion of Hindu causes.
Raised in a government neighborhood in New Delhi, Verma went to one of India’s premier colleges, St. Stephen’s, and then cleared the notoriously difficult civil services examination — hundreds of thousands sit for it each year — to join the Indian Police Service. In 2014, he was made head of New Delhi’s Tihar Jail, the largest prison complex in South Asia with more than 15,000 inmates. Two years later, he was appointed Delhi police commissioner, before his elevation to CBI director in 2017. Verma has been known to be shy and reserved and didn’t address the media on his first day as Delhi police commissioner, as is the tradition. His closest aides have been quoted in newspapers as saying that Verma is quite an emotional guy who fought for the promotion of some 20,000 constables in Delhi Police, but he can get acrimonious and it’s best to avoid his bad side.
Tensions between Verma and the Modi government began to rise after Asthana, a favorite of the prime minister from his time as Gujarat chief minister, was brought in as the agency’s No. 2 officer in October 2017. Asthana, 57, had worked with the agency before and also briefly had run the CBI as its interim chief. But Asthana and Verma’s differences stayed under wraps for months, emerging only in September when the CBI announced that it was investigating six cases against Asthana, who hit back, alleging nine cases of corruption by Verma. Apart from removing Verma and Asthana from office, the government has also transferred out 11 other CBI officers who were probing Asthana. The Supreme Court has ordered the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), another government agency, to probe both sets of allegations by Nov. 9.
Verma is far from blameless, say many experts. Activist-journalist Vineet Narain, whose investigations led to one of India’s biggest corruption scandals in 1990, says the government was “right in sacking” both Verma and Asthana since neither has behaved as “officials should behave” in publicly accusing each other. With corruption allegations against both, the government has no option but to keep them away from office, Sen says. “That’s always been the CBI practice.”
Prakash Singh, a veteran officer who had led many of India’s top security agencies, says the government’s removal of Verma falls in a “gray” zone. On the one hand, the law forbids the government from removing a CBI director during his term, and Verma retires in January 2019. On the other hand, the government technically hasn’t fired him, just sidelined him during the probe. “But once you have divested him of all power, that means you have removed him” from the post, argues Singh.
Even out of office, Verma — and what secrets he might spill — represents a ticking time bomb for the Modi government. In campaign speeches, Congress leader Gandhi is telling his listeners that the Rafale deal, if investigated, would send Modi to jail. “It is just a matter of time. It is an open-and-shut case,” he said at an event in central India’s Indore city on Tuesday.
Verma is holding out veiled threats too. “There are bound to be occasions when certain investigations into high functionaries do not take the direction that may be desirable to the government,” he said in his petition before the Supreme Court, effectively suggesting that the government is trying to muzzle him.
Whatever the Supreme Court decides, to CBI veterans like Sen, this spat represents the eruption of a crisis that has long been in the making, as the agency’s autonomy and the caliber of its officers have declined. “Now,” Sen says, “the pus has come out.”