New Delhi: Hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi acted to oust Alok Verma from his post as head of the Central Bureau of Investigation at midnight on October 23, 2018, an unidentified Indian agency known to be a user of Pegasus spyware made a note of three telephone numbers registered in his name. For India’s top law enforcement official, this was a remarkable reversal of fortune.
Personal telephone numbers of Alok Verma, his wife, daughter and son-in-law would eventually get placed on the list too, making it a total of 8 numbers from this one family. Also added to the list of numbers at the same time as Verma were two other senior CBI officials, Rakesh Asthana and A.K. Sharma. Like the erstwhile director, both men were added on to the database about an hour after their former boss. Asthana was also removed from the CBI on the night of October 23, 2018; he is currently Director General Of Border Security Force (BSF). Sharma was divested that night of the crucial charge he held – head of the policy division – but remained in the CBI till January 2019, when he was transferred out. He retired from government earlier this year.
The numbers of Asthana, Sharma, Verma and his family members figure in the leaked database for a short period. By the second week of February, 2019, by which time Verma had finally retired from government service, this entire cluster of persons ceased being of interest to the government agency which had added them to the list.
NSO insists the leaked database has nothing to do with the company or with Pegasus. Verma was unwilling to participate in this story, so forensics on the telephones linked to him – the only way of conclusively establishing whether they were targeted or infected with Pegasus – could not be carried out.
Charges against Asthana
Asthana, a Gujarat cadre Indian Police Service officer, had worked closely with Narendra Modi in Gujarat when he was chief minister and is known to be extremely close to the prime minister. Sharma, joint director (policy) in the CBI at the time, and also a Gujarat cadre IPS officer, was reputed to enjoy a close relationship with Union home minister Amit Shah, and his name had figured in two controversies associated with Shah’s tenure as home minister of Gujarat: the 2004 Ishrat Jahan fake encounter and the illegal surveillance of a young woman in 2009, apparently at the behest of Modi.
Unlike the Modi-Shah relationship, however, Asthana and Sharma were constantly at loggerheads in the organisation.
Asthana’s induction into the CBI in 2017 was challenged in court by the public service NGO Common Cause, which had objected to his appointment as special director as his name figured in a 2011 diary seized from Sterling Biotech – a company being probed by the CBI for money laundering – as the alleged recipient of payments worth Rs 3.8 crore. The diary subsequently became the basis for the CBI to file an FIR against the firm’s investors and other public servants. Asthana was not named in that FIR but the agency was apparently still investigating his role in the matter.
The matter which led to a case being filed against Asthana on October 21, 2018 pertained to an allegation that he had received kickbacks, amounting to Rs 2 crore, from a businessman, Moin Qureshi, to settle a money laundering case against him. Also named in the FIR was Samant Goel, a police officer who now heads the Research and Analysis Wing – one of the government agencies believed to be operating Pegasus in India.
CBI sources told that Sharma advised Verma that there was enough evidence to file a case against Asthana. He reportedly told colleagues, who wondered what the fallout would be, that he had already briefed “adhyaksh ji” – as he referred to Amit Shah. Sharma said the case was filed on the basis of evidence and that in a sensitive matter like this, the decision to file an FIR was that of the CBI director and not of the policy division.
Modi’s decision to move Asthana out of the CBI and Sharma out of the policy division well, and their presence in the leaked database as persons of interest. may have represented a precautionary move to ensure their rivalry did not cause any more damage to the government.
Already, in the days leading up to the midnight coup, Asthana had levelled serious allegations against Sharma. Asthana accused Sharma’s family of operating illegal shell companies with people who are on the agency’s list of enquiry. Significantly, Sharma was also the officer supervising the bribery case against Asthana.
Asthana’s propriety for indiscretion was on display in May 2021, shortly after the high-level selection panel chose Rishi Kumar Shukla to be the next chief of the CBI.
Asthana was widely regarded as the front-runner, with the government having parked him as head of the CRPF till the post of CBI chief became vacant. But at the selection committee meeting, Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana reportedly objected to his appointment citing a Supreme Court ruling on the amount of tenure a serving police officer must have to be considered for the post.
Soon after the decision was made public, a Twitter handle that Asthana uses, put out two tweets that attacked Modi for not overruling the CJI in the selection committee and predicting that the prime minister would have the same problem with Shukla as he had with Verma.
Until his peremptory termination despite having three months of his tenure to go, Verma had enjoyed the authority to order the surveillance of suspects – under norms prescribed by law.
But unknown to him at the time, the blow the Modi government delivered that night was accompanied by a second sucker punch: someone with the keys to India’s hush-hush spyware deployment system received authorisation to add Verma’s numbers to an extensive list of persons of interest that included at least 10 individuals whose phones bear the tell-tale footprints of Pegasus.
Eight of those phones were forensically confirmed by Amnesty International’s tech lab to have been successfully compromised by the military-grade spyware that its Israeli vendor, NSO Group, says it sells only to “vetted governments”. Two other phones showed signs of targeting. The Wire investigated several hundred India numbers from a leaked database comprising 50,000 numbers believed to be linked to potential targets of Pegasus. Forbidden Stories, a French media non-profit, accessed and shared the database with a consortium of 15 other international media partners.
Differences over key probes boil over
The midnight coup in the CBI came barely two days after Verma ordered the filing of a criminal case against Asthana, then special director in the Bureau, accusing him of corruption.
The case, registered on October 21, 2018 – which ironically depended on (lawful) phone intercepts – sent alarm bells ringing at the highest levels of the government, given Asthana’s proximity to Modi. Two days later, Asthana filed a complaint against Verma with the Central Vigilance Commission.
However, the case against the prime minister’s blue-eyed boy was only one of the factors that had led to the government growing wary of the CBI chief. Verma had courted official displeasure by apparently refusing to take action against individuals whom the establishment had political reasons to target. Worse, he had not quickly rejected a request for a criminal probe into the controversial purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft from France – as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had assumed he would.
On October 4, barely three weeks before Verma was terminated, eminent lawyer Prashant Bhushan and former Union minister Arun Shourie met Verma in his office to personally hand over the Rafale complaint. The government’s unhappiness over this meeting was widely reported at the time. When The Wire contacted Sharma for this story, he confirmed that while the Rafale file was with the CBI, it could not be studied closely because of the turmoil within the bureau.
While Verma may not have begun the formal process of launching a preliminary enquiry in the Rafale matter, the PMO’s fear might have been that Asthana’s counter-attack may have created a situation in which a probe into the aircraft deal would actually be announced.
Verma’s petition in the Supreme Court, filed a few days after his dismissal, sheds some light on the reason for his own sacking. “Certain investigations into high functionaries do not take the direction that may be desirable to the government,” he said, adding, “Not all influence that is exercised by the political government would be found explicitly or in writing. More often than not, it is tacit, and requires considerable courage to withstand”.
Whatever the reasons for Verma’s ouster, the political stakes were clearly high enough for the prime minister to risk the blowback that a high-profile dismissal would inevitably trigger. And the decision to add his numbers, and the numbers of his family, to the list of potential surveillance targets was likely driven by the desire to gauge his legal strategy and to determine whether he was going to leak information that the government would find embarrassing.
Aftermath of Verma’s case
Immediately after Verma’s removal, the CVC, on the Union cabinet secretary’s complaint, initiated an enquiry against the former CBI chief. This forced him to move the Supreme Court against the Centre’s action. A bench, headed by the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, subsequently ordered the CVC to determine the truth of the matter.
However, the CBI infighting took a darker turn when Verma accused the CVC K.V. Chowdary of bias and violating the Supreme Court order, and hinted at the possibility of the PMO’s active intervention in the matter. Verma, in his reply to the CVC’s questions, alleged that the enquiry commission was focussing only on Asthana’s “baseless” accusations, while ignoring corruption charges and impending probe against his deputy in six cases in the course of his career.
In what later snowballed into a political controversy, Verma also alleged that a “top PMO official” used Asthana in the agency to target opposition forces, and that he could name the official if the matter is investigated further, putting the PMO further in the dock.
At the time when the controversy unfolded, however, the whole enquiry process in the CBI matter appeared to be disproportionately titled in Asthana’s favour. Chowdary, against whom Verma made serious allegations, had in the past bee accused of burying evidence in the infamous Sahara-Birla diaries case – a matter that was challenged in the Supreme Court in 2017 but got shot down.
The fact that Verma was a possible target for surveillance using Pegasus during this period underscores the seriousness with which the highest echelons of the government regarded him as a threat.
Verma was exonerated by the SC later, and reinstated in service but then promptly removed through a prescribed procedure. Asthana too, was cleared of all charges.
Verma retired from the Indian Police Service on January 31, 2019. The leaked database indicates he was no longer a person of interest soon after.