The writer is Editor-in-Chief, Financial Chronicle; Visiting Fellow ORF and eminent author. He loves the space where politics and economics converge.

Moin Qureshi: The phantom in the CBI opera

Published Nov 1, 2018, 3:10 am IST
Updated Nov 1, 2018, 3:10 am IST
The bitter internecine sniping within India’s premier anti-graft probe agency was a shocking denouement on the state of disrepair at the CBI.
This was unprecedented. Mr Verma had turned the tables on Mr Asthana and filed a FIR.
 This was unprecedented. Mr Verma had turned the tables on Mr Asthana and filed a FIR.

A shadowy figure — Moin Akhtar Qureshi — crops up like a tedious inevitability of an unloved season in cases involving CBI directors. Three of the last four directors have now been impacted by the surreptitious and secretive machinations of this meat exporter. He is the phantom in the CBI director’s office on the 11th floor in CGO Complex, a la Banquo’s ghost who came to haunt Macbeth. As incumbent director Alok Verma (his family owns the Golden Dragon restaurant chain in NCR) battled his deputy Rakesh Asthana for supremacy in what was drolly reminiscent of the Mad Comics’ Spy vs Spy joust, Mr Qureshi’s handprints were once again visible.

After the CBI named its own second-in-command, Mr Asthana, as an accused in a bribery case, all hell broke loose and both the director and the special director were summarily turfed out in a bloodless midnight coup with the police surrounding the headquarters. The zany wordless comic strip had one spy dressed in white, and the other in black, but they were otherwise identical, and were particularly known for their long, beak-like heads and their white pupils and black sclera. The pair was always at war with each other, using a variety of booby traps to inflict harm on the other. The spies usually alternated between victory and defeat with each new strip.

 

This one between the CBI top dog and his number two is, however, an aerial dogfight to the finish. Like a Netflix serial, it is fast paced with daily developments, which has Lutyens’ Delhi and its power corridors captivated and riveted at the same time. A week is too long in politics, in the CBI’s history it would be the longest and darkest without a doubt. On Monday, October 22, DSP Devender Kumar was arrested for fabrication of documents in support of Mr Asthana’s own attempt to allege corruption by Mr Verma — which was discovered in the course of the investigation into the FIR against Mr Asthana.

On Tuesday, October 23, Mr Kumar was sent to seven days’ remand by the Delhi high court even as court ruled status quo on Mr Asthana’s arrest till the next hearing. (On October 31, Mr Kumar was finally granted bail.) After Mr Asthana had moved the Delhi high court against the lodging of an FIR against him in a bribery case, the court granted him relief from arrest till October 29. Earlier in the afternoon, Mr Asthana had sought the high court’s direction that no coercive action can be taken against him. His petition was mentioned before Chief Justice Rajendra Menon, who allocated the matter to an appropriate bench. “This is a case of illegal registration of FIR.

The person whose arrest was recommended by Asthana has now been made a complainant and based on his complaint this FIR has been filed. Any investigation without proper permission will be illegal,” Mr Asthana’s counsel reportedly told the court. Responding to this allegation, the counsel for the CBI said: “The charges are very serious against the accued, including that of bribery. Charges under the Prevention of Corruption Act along with criminal conspiracy. Charges of extortion and forgery will be added.” This was unprecedented. Mr Verma had turned the tables on Mr Asthana and filed a FIR.

Who is Moin Qureshi? His full name is Moin Akhtar Qureshi. He was educated at Dehradun’s top-flight Doon School and Delhi’s elite St. Stephen’s College. He started his business in 1993, after opening a small slaughterhouse in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. Over the years he transformed himself into becoming India’s biggest meat exporter. He then began to diversify his business and established some 25 companies, which included construction and fashion. His daughter runs a fashion store and is married to London-based chartered accountant Ajit Prasad’s son Arjun. It may be recalled that in 2014, during the election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had suggested that due to Sonia Gandhi’s protection, Mr Qureshi was not investigated despite being on the radar of the income-tax department.

Even as CBI directors changed, Mr Qureshi became the new constant at the CBI. There were allegations that Mr Qureshi was extremely close to two former CBI directors, A.P. Singh and Ranjit Sinha. He is alleged to have exchanged messages with Mr Singh on BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), and this had come under the scanner of the I-T department and the Enforcement Directorate. Mr Qureshi is alleged to be one of India’s biggest evaders of income-tax. The ED too is probing a case relating to around `200 crores being stashed away abroad. On the basis of examination of the documents seized during raids and telephonic intercepts, the I-T department informed the ED and the CBI about Mr Qureshi’s undisclosed offshore assets.

The ED had sought information about his bank accounts in South Africa, Bermuda and Jersey. It may be recalled that in 2011 he had come under the I-T department’s scanner following the wedding of his daughter. He had flown in Pakistani singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. The singer had been detained on his way back to Pakistan by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence for not disclosing foreign currency amounting to Rs 56 lakhs in cash.

Mr Qureshi penetrated the CBI and became all-powerful, fixing meetings and cases. Mr Singh had to resign from his UPSC member post when revelations about his BBM exchange were produced, while Mr Sinha, who Mr Qureshi visited as many as 70 times according to the infamous Ranjit Sinha diaries, was pulled out of the 2G case even as he had only 12 days to complete his tenure. Complicity and collusion were commonplace. In fact, what was deeply distressing was that harassment and extortion had become synonymous with the CBI as cases were hushed up or thrown into cold storage. Here is a sample of the BBM exchanges:

“Sir 500 words essay is good or 1,000 word essay and size of jacket. Fast pls.” When meat exporter Qureshi sent this BBM message in July 2013 to Mr Singh, the former CBI director who was then member of the UPSC replied: “500 words. 40 jacket 16 collar size.” This is the same year that Mr Singh joined the UPSC after he had retired as CBI director. This coded message was one of the many between the two that convinced attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi to inform the Supreme Court on October 17, 2014 that Mr Singh’s conduct was “wholly unbecoming of the office he held (as CBI director)”.

According to the then A-G, these messages were “code language conversations on a daily basis on issues, including helping the accused in some cases”. In another BBM message sent in 2013, Mr Qureshi asked: “From the file you left with me would you require some papers?” Mr Singh replied: “Just some very small papers.” Mr Qureshi of course denied any knowledge of the files mentioned in the messages that were retrieved by officials at Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) from a laptop that was seized from his office premises in Delhi during the income-tax raid on February 15.

The bitter internecine sniping within India’s premier anti-graft probe agency was a shocking denouement on the state of disrepair at the CBI. With PMO mandarins taking sides in this joust, it was murky and dark. Imagine allegations and counter-allegations were flying at the rate of knots, the government paralysed and at one level transfixed by the developments CBI had gone ahead and filed a case against special director Rakesh Asthana levelling charges of bribery in meat exporter Moin Qureshi’s case. Yes, that man, again.

What was even more curious was that Moin Qureshi’s case was being investigated by CBI’s Special Investigation Team, which was headed by Mr Asthana. Incidentally, as part of the government purge, the team investigating Mr Asthana has been disbanded and most of them will now cool their heels in Port Blair, remember Kala Pani. Further more, the timing of the FIR is suspect, given the fact that complainant Hyderabad-based businessman Satish Babu Sana was being examined by Mr Asthana’s team in te same case. Mr Asthana’s explosive letter to the CVC dated October 19 said:

“On receipt of information that Satish Babu paid illegal gratification to Alok Verma, director, CBI, the same was brought to the notice of the Cabinet Secretary, GoI, by Rakesh Asthana, SD, CBI, vide letter dated 24.08.2018. CVC initiated an enquiry and sought relevant files,” reads the letter written by Mr Asthana. He alleges that a bribe was paid to CBI director Alok Verma to settle a case against Satish Sana.

Once again this shocking sequence of events arouses moral distaste and contempt. Like a slingshot, it has struck at the very heart of India’s decaying and morally corrosive culture. It shows the same dysfunctionality that existed in the last days of the UPA. It is now incumbent on the judiciary once again to unfetter the CBI after this darkly disturbing episode, which has made a mockery of the investigative process in India, in an organisation which is clearly undermined by the presence of fixers, brokers, dalals and middlemen who have virtually taken over the CBI headquarters.

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