The removal of Alok Verma as Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation is a disconcerting denouement to an unseemly episode. The controversy that began with a public tussle between Mr. Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana has ended with the former’s removal, although it is couched as a transfer. It was obvious from the beginning that the government did not want him to continue, although it sought to give the impression that it was being even-handed in asking both Mr. Verma and Mr. Asthana to proceed on leave. Mr. Verma’s transfer has exposed an uncomfortable truth — that the legal protection for the CBI Director from external interference is not as strong as some had believed. The Supreme Court’s judgment makes it clear that as long as such transfers follow a set procedure, the incumbent may be replaced. Though the court declared that no authority, other than the high-powered selection committee, could transfer him, its reinstatement of Mr. Verma was not unconditional. It asked the committee — comprising the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India, and the leader of the largest Opposition party — to decide on whether he should be divested of his powers. The government quickly convened a meeting, which was attended by Justice A.K. Sikri, as the nominee of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi. Despite a dissenting note by Mallikarjun Kharge, the majority, that is, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Justice Sikri, ordered Mr. Verma’s transfer.
Questions have been raised about the committee refusing Mr. Verma a personal hearing. The panel apparently chose not to hear him on the ground that the Central Vigilance Commissioner, who held an inquiry on the Supreme Court’s earlier orders, had heard him in the presence of the retired judge, Justice A.K. Patnaik, a supervisor appointed by the court, and that the prima facie findings against Mr. Verma were enough to conclude that he should not remain in that office. As he was neither suspended nor transferred, but only given a post of equal rank, there was no need for a hearing. Even if this position is not strictly untenable from a legal standpoint, it has serious implications for the CBI’s independence. Future regimes may use this precedent to get such an adverse report against an inconvenient director and unseat him. Mr. Kharge’s demand for getting Mr. Verma’s response should have been considered. Mr. Verma has claimed that the CVC report was based only on the complainant’s charges against him, and did not represent the CVC’s ‘findings’. An important learning from the entire episode is that the bipartisan appointment process for the post with the presence of a high judicial functionary as envisaged by the 2003 amendments may not be enough to thwart political stratagems. Far from resolving the institutional crisis in the agency, the outcome may have deeply politicised it.