This movie is about a war inside India’s premier investigating agency – the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
On 23rd October, 1 am the CBI sent two of its senior-most officers (Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana) on indefinite leave owing to corruption charges against them. Meanwhile, a special team of CBI officers has been formed to investigate these charges bringing some big names and cases to the limelight – including the Fodder Scam, the Gujarat dairy scam, and the Rafale Jets deal. Not to mention the previous internal rivalry between Verma and Asthana that has led to incessant finger pointing and complications within the agency.
Add to this cast an infamous meat exporter Moin Qureshi, a Hyderabadi businessman and some shady middlemen from Dubai, and you have a script more complicated than most movies.
Here is our attempt to simplify things a bit:
Meet the characters
CBI Special Director Rakesh Asthana
The man at the centre of the stage, Asthana, is a high-profile officer from Gujarat who has investigated several cases like the burning of the Sabarmati Express in 2002, and the Gujarat dairy scam.
When he was nominated by Modi for a promotion in 2017, he received massive opposition from other officers. CBI Director Alok Verma stated that Asthana was himself involved in the dairy scam that he was investigating. Irrespective, Asthana had a smooth promotion. He is known to be a Modi man often receiving support from the BJP government.
CBI Director Alok Verma
The head of the CBI, Alok Verma’s friction with Asthana goes way back to the Fodder scam in the 1990s. Asthana accused Verma of going soft on former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav during the Fodder scam investigations. And Verma, in turn, accused Asthana of interfering in his case.
Their professional rivalry is the reason why Verma was opposed to Asthana’s promotion since the very beginning. And even though both of them have had multiple instances of internal scuffs before, this is the first time that their enmity has brought the entire CBI under public scrutiny
Sathish Babu Sana
He is a Hyderabad-based businessman whose name turned up in the Moin Qureshi case. Sana was being investigated by the CBI for years. Tired of these investigations he tried to get his name out of the case by bribing Asthana (the main investigator of the case).
His idiocy is what led to the CBI vs CBI issue to prop up.
The setting for this movie is the CBI headquarters. If its walls could talk, they wouldn’t, because that’s how many secrets they’re hiding. From under the table transactions to hidden case files to raids, all the action of this film takes place at the HQ.
The atmosphere inside the building is tense. And it has been so since the 1997 Vineet Narain Hawala case. It gave the government the right to nominate officers to the agency and interfere in their promotions. As a result, by 2000, the CBI had completely stopped direct recruitment of officers, and instead only took in people recommended by the government. Over the years, opposing governments (like INC and BJP) placed their own men at top positions in the agency to cover up their scams, forming multiple warring factions. By 2013, the agency had become fully politicised earning the dubious “caged parrot” sobriquet from the Supreme Court. The current crisis in the CBI is because of the government’s neglect of the agency, which it knew was riven by internal rivalries.
Asthana was the Chief Investigating Officer (CIO) of the Moin Qureshi case and Sana was one of the accused in it. Afraid of being jailed, in 2017, Sana resolved to slyly get his name out of the case files. For this he contacted two Dubai based middlemen – the Prasad brothers – who then got in touch with Asthana. The brothers told Sana that Asthana had asked for a bribe of Rs 5 crore to do the deed. Sana, desperate for his “get out of jail” card immediately agreed to the deal, transferring Rs 3crore as advance to Asthana.
But while this was supposed to be a “straightforward” corruption deal, Asthana broke his word. 6 months later, Sana was still being called for interrogations. This agitated him and in his temper, he filed an FIR against Asthana under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
Here’s where the plot gets funny.
On 15th October 2018, when the FIR was recorded, Sana didn’t quite realise his folly. The CBI first booked him for bribing an officer and interfering in a criminal case and then registered a case of corruption against Asthana.
This is when formal investigations into Asthana’s corruption began, and Alok Verma raided the CBI headquarters to arrest Asthana.
A day after the FIR, the CBI arrested the Prasad brothers who then confessed to their crime before a magistrate. The CBI also found WhatsApp messages between the brothers and Asthana, confirming the latter’s hand in the corruption.
At this point in the story, it may seem like our hero – Asthana’s chapter is about to close. But the CBI Special Director definitely wasn’t going down alone.
Agitated with Verma’s hand in the ongoing investigations he wrote a private letter to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). In that Asthana spoke about how Alok Verma himself had taken crores of rupees in bribe to protect people involved in the Fodder scam. He also said that in the Qureshi case, it was Verma who took the bribe and not him.
The letter opened a new can of worms, bringing Verma under ire and questioning his previous investigations (like the WhatsApp messages) against Asthana. As a result, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent direct orders to send off Verma on an indefinite leave overnight. He was replaced by an interim Director – M Nageshwar Rao.
After weeks of battling the system, Verma’s pride was finally restored when he was reinstated as CBI chief by the Supreme Court on 8th January 2019. Though a nominal win, as Verma wasn’t allowed to make any major bureaucratic decisions, people were happy with the SC’s decision.
Of course, like everything good in life, this happiness too came with a side of sour. On 11th Januray, in less than 36 hours since his reinstatement, Verma was fired by PM Modi.
So while the country easily distracts over Verma’s tribulation, one can’t forget there are more holes in this system than in Blackburn Lancashire.
The Plot Thickens
Modi’s decision to send off Alok Verma received a lot of public flak and suspicion. For one, Verma was sent on leave without any investigations into the verity of Asthana’s letter. And for the second, according to the Lokpal Act, since the CBI is one of the top-most agencies in the country, the government has no right to dismiss or replace a CBI Director.
Modi’s actions were unlawful and raised several eyebrows.
One cannot help but notice the surprising connection of Verma’s dismissal to the Rafale Jets deal. The infamous deal that Modi struck in August was due for investigations in November. And guess who was supposed to be the investigating officer of the deal. That’s right! Alok Verma!
One might say that it was quite the coincidence for Verma to be embroiled in a corruption case weeks before the Rafale investigations were to commence. Not just this, but the CBI officer – AK Bassi – who was investigating Asthana’s case was also transferred from the Delhi cadre to Port Blair by Modi’s office. Since then, thirteen other senior investigating officers have also been transferred – the largest such agency purge in recent years.
All of this, put together, definitely smells suspicious!
According to Asthana, the entire case against him has been pushed at the behest of Alok Verma, in an attempt to falsely implicate him. He claims that Verma has sent one of his khabris to Gujarat to dig out information against him.
Verma, on the other hand, has challenged his dismissal in the Supreme Court. He said that the law mandates a fixed two-year tenure for the Director. This means that even if the Modi wants to side with Asthana he cannot simply dismiss Verma.
Multiple raids are being conducted at the CBI Headquarters in New Delhi and the 10th and 11th floors of the building are being searched. Both Verma and Asthana’s office have also reportedly been sealed and the teams under them are being called for interrogations.
At this point in the story, we can see how an internal feud led to the CBI investigating and raiding its own office. With all the political puppeteering and festering corruption, the agency’s downturn was imminent.
In the words of Rahul Gandhi, “The CBI is an institution in terminal decline that’s at war with itself.”