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The man who saved the Congress

columns Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:40 IST
Indrajit Hazra

I must admit, I didn't see it coming. Not by a mile. But with Manmohan Singh stepping down as prime minister after taking responsibility for the government's 'error' in pushing through PJ Thomas as central vigilance commissioner (CVC), moral equilibrium - not to mention my belief in the goodness of good Congressmen - has been restored.

He needn't have resigned; not on this issue. The Supreme Court, in its multi-levelled ticking off of the government, never once charged the PM of pushing through the candidature of a person who shouldn't have been even considered for the CVC's job. Even the BJP, quick to demand his resignation even when a peon spills tea in the party canteen, has been eerily quiet.

But there aren't that many public offices left in the country that are inoculated against naked opportunism - or whatever the opposite of integrity is. And by insisting on the appointment of a man still innocent but also still an accused in a corruption case, Singh loosened his bladder in the cleanest swimming pool in town.

Even then, I wouldn't have thought that Singh was going to resign. His party's position was that an 'error' had been committed and there had been no malicious intent on the government's part in appointing Thomas. Politically, with no crime committed or public coffers looted, this 'error' was going to become an oversight by a fortnight. In any case, the never-failing tactic of uttering the word 'Yeddyurappa' three times for every time the BJP talked about the PJ Thomas affair was bound to show happy results for the Congress by the weekend.

And yet, Singh felt compelled enough to resign.

The Supreme Court did underline the fact on Wednesday that the institutional integrity of the CVC had been breached. The point was not whether Thomas, then Kerala food secretary, is guilty of signing off a dodgy multi-crore palm olein import deal in 1992. (Some lawyers are already pointing out that spelling the product as one word automatically makes the case null and void.) The point was whether at the time of his appointment as CVC in September 2010 - and, for that matter, before that when his name cropped up in the nomination list for the post - he was above suspicion like the prime minister's favourite pin-up girl, Mrs Caesar. He was not.

It seems apparent now that the government's 'error' was not caused by ignorance (or by bad arithmetic on the part of the Comptroller and Auditor General). Sushma Swaraj, the lone dissenter in the high-powered committee, did disagree with the selection and asked for the decision to be postponed by at least a day so that Thomas' records could be checked a wee bit more thoroughly. This request was rejected by the committee head, the prime minister.

If the Supreme Court did point to a systemic failure - and in cock-ups like this, the institution magically becomes bereft of flesh and blood individuals - why did Singh take it on himself to wrest responsibility from the jaws of the System? Could it be because he was tired of being clueless himself about why he and his colleague the home minister - whom he bravely exonerated by running himself out - pushed so hard for PJ Thomas as CVC despite the obvious dangers involved? This wasn't defending a son-in-law accused of running after other men's daughters; this was marrying your daughter off to a suspected philanderer.

What made it so necessary for Singh to push for someone who wasn't spotless, even as it meant running the serious risk of humiliating his own government? 'Harmless' pressure from a bevy of favoured bureaucrats perhaps? The desire to test how much the government - any government - can get away with? Or, as suggested by some informed trackers of evil, something more insidious? Perhaps the 'error' was facilitated by the BJP's constant stonewalling of nearly every government decision. This time round though, the government was firmly told by the court that pigs really can't fly.

I don't know why the government forced through Thomas' appointment as CVC. I suspect that neither does the former PM. It was this constant living in the pristine Castle of Ignorance surrounded by the Moat of Muck that may have finally become too much for him. To restore the semblance of morality in governance - and, in no small amount, in the Congress - Manmohan Singh did the brave, right, unprecedented thing. Even as I never honestly expected him to do it.