As the CBI deals with an unprecedented internal crisis, all eyes are on the Supreme Court tomorrow when its Director Alok Verma's plea against the Centre's order divesting him of duties and sending him on leave is slated to come up, amid high drama Thursday over the presence of IB officers outside his official residence here.
Ahead of the hearing in the apex court, the CBI clarified Verma and Rakesh Asthana, who are locked in a bitter feud that triggered the crisis, will remain its Director and Special Director, in a bid to stress they were not removed from their posts. Both Verma and Astana were stripped of their powers and sent on leave by the Centre on the intervening night of Wednesday and Thursday.
The statement by a CBI spokesman in which it was also said appointment of Joint Director M Nageshwar Rao to discharge the duties of the agency director was only an interim arrangement came amid an escalating attack by Congress president Rahul Gandhi on the Modi government over the crisis in the country's premier probe agency.
The spokesman said the arrangement will continue until the Central Vigilance Commission(CVC) decides on its probe into graft allegations against the CBI's top two officers.
Addressing a poll rally in Rajasthan and a news conference later in Delhi, Gandhi said forcing Verma to go on indefinite leave was "illegal" and alleged it was done as the government "panicked" over the possibility of him investigating the controversial Rafale jet deal.
Senior BJP leader Prakash Javadekar rejected as "manufactured lie" Gandhi's charge that government panicked over the possibility of him investigating the Rafale deal.
At a news conference, the union minister also emphatically said that the CBI chief was not removed and only sent on leave.
In a veiled reference to Nageswara Rao, Gandhi also alleged that the interim charge of the agency has been given to a person who has cases against him so that the prime minister can control him.
In a related development, the Supreme Court said it would consider according urgent hearing to a PIL seeking court-monitored SIT probe into the allegations of corruption against various CBI officials, including Asthana.
A bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi considered the submission of lawyer Prashant Bhushan, appearing for NGO 'Common Cause' that there were wider issues of corruption affecting the probe agency and the PIL needed to be heard urgently.
In his legal challenge before the apex court, Verma also sought stay of the Centre's order asking him to proceed on leave and giving interim charge of his post to Rao, a 1986 batch Odisha-cadre IPS officer.
Verma's petition is listed for hearing before a bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph. It will come up along with the petition filed by 'Common Cause'.
The CBI chief contended that the decision taken "overnight" by the Centre and the CVC to divest him of his role as the head of the probe agency was "patently illegal" and such interference "erodes" the independence and autonomy of the institution.
A row also broke out after four men belonging to the Intelligence Bureau(IB) were picked up outside Verma's official residence.
While Home Ministry officials said the four men were on "routine, covert" duties in the high security area outside Verma's 2 Janpath residence, sources said they were taken away by police and questioned.
The IB is entrusted with the responsibility of collecting intelligence on situations that may affect public order and internal security. Among other things, its units are "routinely" deployed in "sensitive areas", a Home Ministry official said.
At times, this is done in association with local law enforcement agencies, and at other times, a surprise element is built in, he added.
This also enables law enforcement agencies to respond immediately to developing situations. The officials carry their identity cards since they are on "routine duties", he explained.
"This is unlike surveillance, which is done without any visible appurtenances. One unit, in the early hours of today, halted at Janpath where there was an unusual collection of people," the official said.
This was with a view to check why people had collected at the location.
"This is a high security zone where several protectees reside. Unfortunately, their presence was projected otherwise," another official said.
Though police sources said the men were being interrogated, Deputy Commissioner of Police (New Delhi) Madhur Verma denied that police detained and questioned them.
The CBI which refused to comment on the question about the status of Verma and Asthana Wednesday issued a clarification saying, "Alok Verma continues to remain Director of CBI, Asthana remains Special Director."
The CBI also rubbished as false a news report that files related to several crucial cases, including that of the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, was under the consideration of Verma when he was divested of his powers by the Centre in a midnight order.
This is being manufactured by vested interests. Every file in the CBI at each level is accounted for, he added.