When the CBI Director lost his post during Vajpayee government

The civil war within CBI is first of its kind. However, the overnight, hasty removal of CBI director Alok Verma serves a sense of Déjà vu.


On early Wednesday night, the 2 Janpath witnessed a development that was well just a beginning of the snowballing crisis. The CBI Director Alok Verma was sent on forced leave along with the warring Special Director of CBI Rakesh Asthana. Not only the two topmost officials of India’s premier agency were forced to vacate the office but the entire team of officials that was probing the corruption case against Asthana was mass transferred overnight.

CBI Chief who has a clean record and is known as a stickler of rules challenged the Centre’s decision in the Supreme Court. He urged for an urgent hearing. However, the Apex Court has listed Verma’s plea for hearing on Friday. This rude removal of the CBI director has now become the thorn in the flesh for the Modi government. As pointed in this story earlier, the CBI fracas trail leads to Rafale connection which might explain the knee-jerk reaction by the government. Incidentally, the civil war within the CBI and the public fallout that followed is first of its kind. However, the overnight, hasty removal of CBI director Alok Verma serves a sense of Déjà vu.

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This is not the first time the head of the CBI has been shown the door abruptly for supposedly not toeing the government’s line. This has first happened during the NDA 1 regime. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister of the country. Trinath Mishra had taken charge of the Central Bureau of investigation as the Director. He had served as the head of Special Protection Group under four Prime Ministers—Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandrashekhar and PV Narasimha Rao. From the beginning, Mishra refused to bow down to the political powers. It is said that this was precisely why he was removed from his post. At that time, the tenure of the CBI director was not fixed and the government would call the shots on appointments and removals.

As mentioned by Trinath Mishra in his version of stories here, the CBI dealt with some high profile cases during his tenure including the death cases caused by adulterated mustard oil, theft of idols from Shivpuri, the prosecution in Bofors and fodder scam, Bombay riots. However, it was the case related to the Business Tycoon late Dhirubhai Ambani that led to his wrangle with the Vajpayee government.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Atal Bihari Vajpayee in PM chair

On November 19, 1998, exactly when it clocked eight a team of CBI officers in their signature white ambassador arrived at Mumbai’s elite area of Cuff Parade. CBI- the premier Anti-Corruption body arriving at the elite areas of Mumbai where the rich lived was itself a big news. The bigger news was the CBI raid on the house of Dhirubhai Ambani. The team also had a search warrant. The simultaneous raids were also conducted at the Reliance offices in Mumbai as well as Delhi. The raid went on for as many as eight hours.

This was for the first time in many years that a company as big as Reliance was being raided by the CBI. The raids were carried in connection with the violation of the Official Secrets Act. The CBI was carrying out a search operation to find whether Ambani group and Reliance had any confidential government file.

Initially, Reliance tried to scuttle the issue away but it was too big a development to push under the carpet. On November 20, the Ambani group finally confirmed that CBI indeed raided its premises. A report published in The Outlook ten days later revealed that some sensitive documents were found in the raids. Allegedly, the documents were related to the deal between Reliance Corporation and Indian Oil Corporation. The sources told The Outlook that the documents contained classified information from petroleum ministry which came under the ambit of Official Secrets Act.

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The entire episode started with the arrest of Daud Ibrahim’s henchman Romesh Sharma in Delhi. Apparently, the trails of information from Sharma led to former Reliance Industries Delhi President Balasubramaniam. The CBI raided his house too where they found confidential documents. This led to suspicion of more such documents being in possession of Reliance industries. Within a month, CBI raided Dhirubhai Ambani’s house and offices across the two metro cities.

However, the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani were not in favour of the raids. According to Mishra, the duo had made it clear that they didn’t want the CBI to raid Reliance group. Though there wasn’t any direct order to stop the raids, the tacit pressure was always there. The raid created a lot of storm in the media. Apparently, after the raids, Dhirubhai Ambani also dialled the PMO and talked to Vajpayee. Soon after, Mishra was removed from the post. He served on the post only for 14 months. In his article, he mentions that his reputation was of an upright and uptight IPS officer who didn’t toe the line drawn by the politicians.

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It is only a coincidence that after almost 20 years the history is repeating itself and that too under NDA 2. The regime and the bureaucrats may have changed over the years but what has remained constant throughout the years is the political meddling in the working of India’s premier investigating agency. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say the political infiltration has infected the system and situation has only worsened. What can be a more evident example than the fact that four IB officers were caught snooping outside Alok Verma’s residence today morning? Though IB denies that they were spying on Verma, the timing does raise a lot of doubt.

It proves that the rot is not only in the CBI but deep in India’s premier institutions which are trusted with independent and unbiased functioning.

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