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Rao’s appointment as interim CBI director for two small stints was allegedly done without consulting the selection committee for the agency’s chief

The Supreme Court, on Tuesday (February 19), dismissed a petition that had challenged the manner in which the Centre had, on two occasions, appointed M Nageswara Rao as the interim director of the CBI.

Rao had served in the post first when the Centre and CVC had, in a controversial decision later reversed by the Supreme Court, divested then CBI director Alok Verma of his responsibilities on the midnight of October 23. Later, when the selection committee mandated for appointing the CBI director dismissed Verma from office, within 48 hours of his reinstatement to the post by the apex court, on January 10, Rao had been brought back as interim chief of the premier investigation agency.

The petition had challenged Rao’s second stint as the interim CBI chief. The petitioners had argued that Rao’s appointment was done in violation of the rules set for appointing the CBI director and that the selection committee, comprising the Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India and Leader of Opposition (or the largest opposition party) in Lok Sabha had not met to discuss and clear his appointment.

The selection committee had, on February 2, cleared the appointment of former Madhya Pradesh Director General of Police and 1983 batch IPS officer Rishi Kumar Shukla as the new full-time director of the CBI. The decision had effectively made the petition challenging Rao’s appointment as the agency’s interim chief infructuous.

However, the course of the proceedings in the petition was full drama. To begin with, three Supreme Court judges – Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice AK Sikri and Justice NV Ramana – had recused from hearing the case. The case was finally listed before the bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra.

During one hearing in the case, Attorney General KK Venugopal had told the court that Rao’s appointment as the interim chief had been approved by the selection committee. Advocate Prashant Bhushan, counsel for the petitioner, had taken to Twitter to claim that Venugopal had tried to mislead the court. Bhushan said that he had spoken to Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, one of the three members of the selection committee, who confirmed that Rao’s appointment was not discussed by the panel.

Venugopal had then sought contempt proceedings initiated against Bhushan and reiterated before the court that Rao’s appointment had the selection panel’s approval. A decision on whether Bhushan should be held in contempt is still awaited.

Rao’s actions as the interim CBI director had also come in for judicial reprimand during the pendency of this petition. Earlier this month, in an unprecedented move, Rao, still an additional director with the CBI and among the agency’s top three officers, was found guilty of contempt of court and penalized with a fine of Rs 1 lakh and detention within the courtroom of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi for a day, for transferring senior CBI official AK Sharma despite an embargo imposed by the Supreme Court on his transfer.

Sharma was heading the probe into the Muzaffarpur shelter home case. However, his proximity to axed CBI director Alok Verma and frosty ties with tainted former CBI special director Rakesh Asthana, a close confidante of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had led to Rao transferring him soon after Verma was moved out of the agency. In his hurry to move Sharma and other officers close to Verma to new, relatively less important roles, Rao forgot that the Supreme Court had imposed an embargo on transfer of all CBI officers who were part of the team – Sharma being the head of this probe – investigating the Muzaffarpur shelter home case. The top court held Rao in contempt for violating its orders.

On Tuesday, as the court dismissed the petition challenging Rao’s appointment it refused to address the other key question raised in the plea – that of the need for greater transparency in the appointment process for the CBI director (or interim director). The bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Navin Sinha simply held that a full-time CBI director had already been appointed; hence it needn’t interfere with the appointment of Rao whose contested stint as interim CBI chief had already ended.

—India Legal Bureau

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