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CBI war clouds chief ’s choice

Aratu R Jerath |

The war in the CBI is not just embarrassing for the Modi government, it has serious implications for the appointment of the next director of the premier investigative agency. Incumbent Alok Verma retires in January and in the normal course, his deputy Rakesh Asthana would have succeeded him. But the ugly battle between the two, which is out in the open now, has derailed the plan. The matter has been complicated by the fact that the composition of the selection committee has changed.

The Supreme Court has a new Chief Justice, Rajan Gogoi, who along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge of the Congress, make up the three-member panel to appoint the CBI director. The government faces two serious problems. One is whether Asthana can survive the FIR that Verma has had lodged implicating him in a case of bribery among other charges. It may be recalled that Asthana was brought to Delhi from Gujarat and appointed as the second in command in the CBI.

The idea was to position him to take over as CBI director when the time came. Now there are doubts about his survival in his present post. Although Asthana has hit back at Verma with a long list of complaints currently being studied by the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, the CBI director is protected by the security of his tenure, set at two years by a Supreme Court judgement. If Asthana is forced to step down, the government would then be desperate to find a loyalist after its bitter experience with Verma. This is the government’s second headache.

With the change in the composition of the selection panel, it may not get its way. It is pretty obvious that Mallikarjun Kharge of the Congress who will be invited as the LoP will not endorse the government’s choice. Consequently, the role of newly anointed CJI Rajan Gogoi assumes importance.

Will he go along with the government as his predecessor did? Or will he exercise independent judgement? The choice of the CBI chief is usually by consensus. If there’s a vote, it’s crucial that the PM have one of the other two members on his side to get his nominee in. CBI circles as well as BJP circles are watching with bated breath for signals from Gogoi that would indicate his mindset.

Naidu in Surjeet’s role?

Late CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet is credited with creating the Congress-led UPA which unexpectedly defeated the BJP-led NDA in 2004 and went on to form the government with Manmohan Singh as prime minister. It seems TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu is hoping to play the same role for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. According to political circles, Naidu is very active these days. He is in touch with virtually every opposition party including the Congress in a bid to stitch together a pre-election understanding for a oneon-one fight against Modi and the BJP. In fact, he has replaced Mamata Banerjee as the main interlocutor between the opposition parties. These days, Mamata is more preoccupied with fending off the BJP which is snapping at her heels in Bengal.

The saffron parivar is making an aggressive bid to win seats and emerge as the number two party in the state in place of the Left and Congress. There are two reasons for Naidu’s acceptability among opposition parties. One, he has a good equation with all leaders including bitter rivals Left and Mamata’s Trinamool Congress. So he serves as the ideal bridge for parties that otherwise don’t talk to each other. Two, unlike Mamata and Mayawati, Naidu is not seen as a contender for the post of prime minister if the opposition wins in 2019.

Andhra Pradesh has just 25 MPs in the Lok Sabha. Even if the TDP does brilliantly, Naidu’s support base in the opposition alliance will be smaller than that of Mayawati and Mamata, both of whom represent larger states. Surjeet managed to put together a winning alliance in 2004. His biggest success was to persuade the Congress to agree to share seats with the DMK in Tamil Nadu despite Sonia Gandhi’s suspicions about the Tamil party’s connections with the LTTE. The Congress-DMK alliance swept all 40 seats in TN and Puducherry. In contrast, Naidu is finding it difficult even to get the Congress and AAP together in Delhi!

Why Akbar had to go

An IB report is believed to have sealed MJ Akbar’s fate and forced him to resign. According to well placed sources in the government, IB warned the powers-that-be that journalists, both women and men, were planning to hold a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s residence to demand the ouster of #MeToo hit Akbar.

A demonstration of this kind would have dragged Narendra Modi into the controversy and pitted the government against the media, something no political party wants on the eve of crucial elections. It is believed that National Security Advisor A K Doval cautioned the PM of the pitfalls. Doval was entrusted with the task of conveying the bad news to Akbar, that he should step down forthwith, before his defamation case came up for hearing and before the court took cognizance of the petition submitted by 20 women demanding that their stories of sexual harassment by the former editor be heard. In fact, journalists, both men and women, have put up an amazing show of solidarity with the #MeToo campaign. At least three media organisations issued a strong statement supporting the courageous women who named and shamed Akbar.

The Editors Guild offered to help them with their legal fight. There was also a proposal for a signature campaign to demand Akbar’s resignation. Those who thought that women journalists would be intimidated or that the media community could be divided on this issue clearly miscalculated. It was this unexpected show of solidarity that turned the tide against Akbar.