Amid corruption allegations and counter-allegations by CBI chief Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana, the duo have been sent on leave along with a few senior officers. The country's top investigating agency will now have M Nageswar Rao as the interim director. The CBI chief has challenged the order in the Supreme Court, which has listed the hearing for Friday.
The decision was taken following a recommendation by the country's top vigilance officer that the top two officers be sent on "compulsory wait", stripped of all responsibilities. Sources say Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had summoned both Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana over the crisis, agreed with the recommendation.
The late-night development, however, was termed as "illegal", a "shoddy cover-up" and "panic move" by opposition parties. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has rubbished the opposition's charge and said, "We are not going to pre-judge who is guilty. If they are innocent they will come back."
The Congress had posted on Twitter, "While the PMO is busy picking sides in the CBI battle, the only losers are the people of India - having lost another institution to the deplorable autocratic antics of the BJP govt."
On the opposition's attack that the government is trying to protect Rakesh Asthana -- a Gujarat cadre officer dubbed the Prime Minister's "blue-eyed boy" by Congress chief Rahul Gandhi -- Mr Jaitley said, "During an investigation, red eyes or blue eyes don't matter... it is the evidence that matters."
Congress's national spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said it's illegal to interfere in the tenure of the CBI director.
Was it done cos #cbi prosecution of No2 wld have unearthed horrible skeletons in #GOI#bjp cupboards? Was it cos NO 2 blue eyed boy threatened to reveal all? U seek removal of ex law minister 4talking to #cbi & PM directly interfere in ongoing serious corruption investigation!- Abhishek Singhvi (@DrAMSinghvi) October 24, 2018
In a series of tweets, senior Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala called it a "systematic dismantling of CBI". "Modi Govt buries the 'last nail' into the independence of CBI. Systematic dismantling & denigrating of CBI is now complete. Once a premier investigating agency, PM ensures that CBI's integrity, credibility & reliability is 'buried & dead'," he said.
3/n- Randeep Singh Surjewala (@rssurjewala) October 24, 2018
PM Modi has demonstrated the true colour of his infamous 'Modi Made Gujarat Model' by this cloak-and-dagger mugging of CBI.
Has the CBI Director been sacked for his keenness to probe the layers of corruption in Rafale Scam? Isn't the rest a shoddy cover up?
Let PM answer! pic.twitter.com/80ckyFiOJX
"The illegal removal of CBI Chief by Modi government to protect their own handpicked officer, against whom serious charges of corruption are being investigated, points to attempts at a serious cover-up to protect his direct links to the BJP's top political leadership," tweeted CPI (M) leader Sitaram Yechury.
To ensure that the CBI is not a "caged parrot", Supreme Court had granted protection to the Chief from govt's whims and fancies by giving him a two-year tenure. What is Modi govt trying to hide by its panic move? #BJPCorruption- Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) October 24, 2018
The government has also been accused of "protecting" fugitives like Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya and going after people who act against the corrupt.
You are with Mallya, Nirav, Choksi, Ambani, Asthana & so on- Arun Shourie (@FeignShourie) October 24, 2018
You are against Pradeep Sharma, Sanjiv Bhatt & now Alok Verma!
Dear @narendramodi, you have to inform the nation that why you are always with corrupt and vindictive towards people who act against corrupt? #CBIBossSacked
Central BJP Intruders (CBI) have virtually taken over Caged Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to save Corrupt Brokers of India (CBI) through it's Criminal Barter Interrogation (CBI) by its Crooked Bureaucrats of Incompetence (CBI). #CBIVsCBI- Tejashwi Yadav (@yadavtejashwi) October 24, 2018
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, too, tweeted about the "unfortunate" development.
CBI has now become so called BBI ( BJP Bureau of Investigation ) - very unfortunate!- Mamata Banerjee (@MamataOfficial) October 24, 2018
Lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan claims that the order is an attempt to "protect Rakesh Asthana from investigation" and "prevent" Alok Verma from probing the controversial Rafale fighter jet deal.
"Apart from protecting Asthana from investigation, the Rafale complaint by Shourie, Sinha & myself, entertained by the CBI Director, must be another reason for the Govt to remove him with such alacrity by this midnight order," Mr Bhushan alleged.
IMPORTANT Modi & Doval carried out the post midnight coup against Verma because Asthana had protection from arrest only till Monday. Verma was planning to move on #RafaelDeal- Swati Chaturvedi (@bainjal) October 24, 2018
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also attacked the government and wondered if there was a "co-relation between the Rafale deal and removal of Alok Verma". "Was Alok Verma about to start investigations into Rafale, which cud become problem for Modi ji?" the AAP chief tweeted.
What are the reasons for sending CBI director on leave? Under which law did the Modi govt get the authority to initiate action against the chief of an investigating agency appointed as per the Lokpal Act ? What is Modi govt trying to hide ?- Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) October 24, 2018
Alok Verma cannot be removed before his fixed two-year term as CBI director without a meeting of a group that includes the PM, Chief Justice and leader of opposition, said lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan.
Disclaimer: NDTV has been sued for 10,000 crores by Anil Ambani's Reliance Group for its coverage of the Rafale deal.