Modi’s blue-eyed boy

Rakesh Asthana, Narendra Modi’s trusted super cop, rose quickly in the ranks after he began to serve the Hindutva project in Gujarat and elsewhere.

Published : Nov 08, 2018 12:30 IST

Rakesh Asthana addressing the media after conducting searches at over a dozen locations of RJD chief Lalu Prasad, in New Delhi on July 7, 2017.

Rakesh Asthana addressing the media after conducting searches at over a dozen locations of RJD chief Lalu Prasad, in New Delhi on July 7, 2017.

Rakesh Asthana perhaps tops the list of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s blue-eyed boys in the police force. As is well known now, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has placed all its men in almost every significant organisation and institution. Asthana, a Gujarat cadre Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, was made second-in-command at the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) soon after Modi assumed office at the Centre.

Asthana’s glaring connection to Modi and BJP president Amit Shah from his days with the Gujarat police will obviously not bode well for them, particularly with the general election looming large. It will be interesting to see what he reveals. Or will he ride out the storm, and like his Gujarat colleagues be put back into the system with a few warnings.

The only difference between Asthana and the other Gujarat officers is that he has reached a high official position and it will be hard for him to manoeuvre the situation given the misdeeds he has been accused of. But stranger things have happened in Gujarat and at the Centre, both led by Modi and his team.

Asthana has been forced to go on leave following bribery charges amounting to Rs.3 crore and his public spat with CBI Director Alok Verma. Other allegations against him include misuse of power to accept favours from corporate houses and the display of excessive ambition and flamboyance.

The Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) is examining how Asthana paid for his daughter’s opulent wedding held at the Lakshmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara in 2016. The extravagance was much beyond the capacity of a salaried officer, said a Vadodara businessman. Asthana has maintained, and it is corroborated by hoteliers, that the services were complimentary.

Until the mid 90s, Asthana moved up the ranks through the usual route of promotions. In fact, he was known to be a conscientious and “upright” officer, said R.B. Sreekumar, a former Inspector General of Police in Gujarat, who was also Asthana’s superior. A 1984 batch officer, Asthana started his career as a subdivisional police officer in Patlad town in Anand district. He was Superintendent of Police (S.P.) in Jamnagar and Patan, Deputy Commissioner of Police in Ahmedabad and, after being on a deputation, Inspector General of Police in Vadodara, Commissioner of Police in Surat, and Commissioner of Police in Vadodara.

Turning point in career

A deputation to the CBI in 1995 as S.P. in Dhanbad, Bihar, appears to have been a turning point in his career. Asthana latched on to an assignment to investigate the then Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad who was charged in the Rs.950-crore fodder scam. Lalu Prasad was convicted largely owing to Asthana’s relentless pursuit of the case, Sreekumar said. His success in slamming Lalu Prasad and not being cowed down by his intimidation caught the attention of L.K. Advani, who was then the BJP president. Advani would later reward him for nailing the BJP’s No. 1 enemy.

After the fodder scam investigation, Asthana was repatriated to Gujarat, just before the 2002 pogrom. The Gujarat government appointed Asthana as officer to investigate the Sabarmati train burning incident, which set off the riots. It is believed that Advani played a role in his appointment.

“Perhaps his success with the fodder scam investigation and his inclination towards the Hindutva ideology made him their choice,” Sreekumar told Frontline .

“In no time, Asthana became part of that lot of bureaucrats and police officials who would dance to the tune of politicians. It is unfortunate because I remember him as a good officer, extremely methodical and precise. I would not have thought he would go this way,” he said.

Master of the game

Asthana’s masterstroke, which perhaps endeared him to the Modi government in Gujarat, was that he turned the Godhra investigation into a probe into a conspiracy. Initially, it was believed that the coaches were set on fire by local people as a reaction to eve-teasing and harassment of vendors by kar sevaks who were returning from Ayodhya. Asthana reportedly found evidence that it was a predetermined, planned attack.

This explanation obviously suited the Modi government. It overturned Supreme Court Justice Umesh Banerji’s report, which described the incident as an accidental fire, and continued to hold on to Asthana’s finding. Close to 100 Muslims were arrested. Some of them died in custody. In 2011, the Gujarat High Court acquitted 63 of them, including Maulvi Saeed Umarji, who was considered the prime conspirator. Twenty of them were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The death penalty handed to 11 persons was commuted to life imprisonment.

To date, in spite of evidence produced by lawyers and activists, the stand that the Godhra train fire was a conspiracy holds. According to Asthana’s investigation, the attackers ranged from international terror outfits to local minority organisations. The exact names of the “planners” of the Godhra incident are yet to emerge.

According to a lawyer who works on communal issues, “Asthana single-handedly turned the Godhra investigation to suit the government’s agenda. He proved to be their man. He would do what they wanted. And he knew he would be rewarded.”

After the Godhra investigation, Asthana was posted to Vadodara and Surat. The businessman from Vadodara said from a high-level police officer Asthana quickly transformed into a high-profile police officer and part of the city’s elite circle. It was in Vadodara that he apparently became associated with the Sandesara brothers who own the pharmaceutical company Sterling Biotech. Asthana has been seen socialising with them. The Sandesara group was busted in 2017 for a Rs.5,000-crore bank and money laundering fraud. Chetan and Nitin Sandesara are considered economic fugitives, hiding in Dubai. One of the accusations against Asthana by Alok Verma is that his initials “RA” was found in diaries seized during raids on the company. It is alleged that he helped the brothers in their operations.

Asthana is associated with almost every high-profile criminal case in Gujarat other than riots investigation and the infamous encounters. When Chief Minister Modi needed to show that he was looking after people’s interests, he used Asthana. When he needed to carry out his hidden agenda, Asthana was his man Friday.

Terror cases

When 21 bombs exploded across Ahmedabad in July 2008, the State was shaken. Modi had worked hard on the plank that the State was safe under his rule. Asthana was brought in and in record time he cracked the case, concluding that the explosions were the handiwork of the Indian Mujahideen with support from international terror outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Several local Muslim leaders, including a Student Islamic Movement of India leader, were arrested. Activists and opposition party leaders criticised the investigation for picking easy and obvious suspects. As in most terror cases, the real story never surfaced. Asthana had to produce some results that made the Chief Minister look like he was doing his job, an activist said.

The self-styled guru Asaram Bapu had enjoyed Modi’s patronage. However, when accusations of rape against him surfaced, Modi distanced himself from the guru. Asthana ensured that both Asaram and his son Narayan Sai (also accused of rape) were put away. When the youth leader Hardik Patel rose to fame demanding economic rights for the large Patel community in Gujarat, a potential threat to Modi’s political stability became evident.

Asthana headed the case against Hardik Patel. Sedition charges were slapped on him and the firebrand youth spent months in jail, which brought the Patel movement to a grinding halt.

When Modi became Prime Minister, Asthana was chosen to head the CBI as its interim chief from December 2016 to January 2017. He may even have been made Director had the opposition not created a ruckus. Asthana was made Deputy Director.

During his second stint at the CBI, Asthana investigated the AugustaWestland defence case, corruption charges against Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, and the case of fraud involving the liquor baron Vijay Mallya. His ability to produce results kept him in the Prime Minister’s good books. One of the reasons for the rift between Verma and Asthana is that because of the latter’s proximity to the Prime Minister’s Office, Verma was bypassed or left out of major decisions.

Thirty-two police personnel, including IPS officers, were arrested for cold-blooded killings in Gujarat. Most of these policemen, including the notorious encounter specialist D.G. Vanzara, spent some time in jail but were released, reinstated and even promoted. Both Modi and Amit Shah held the Home portfolio in Gujarat and were known to give cops a certain amount of impunity.

Asthana is a temporary embarrassment. He, too, will probably land on his feet. Or, he may be a loose cannon the Modi-Amit Shah duo may need to watch out for.

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