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Roughshod riders

By appointing PJ Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner, the government goofed up badly. Now it’s having to repent. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta writes.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:40 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram could have saved themselves considerable embarrassment if they had not hastily appointed Polayil Joseph Thomas, one of the seniormost officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), as the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) on September 7. They would have saved the UPA government the ignominy of having the Supreme Court quashing Thomas’ appointment to an important and sensitive constitutional post on the ground that it was “illegal”.

To say that the government was unaware of the allegations pending against Thomas (irrespective of their veracity) is an admission of negligence and worse. To claim that there is nothing wrong in appointing a person to the post of CVC against whom criminal charges have been levelled on the plea that one out of four MPs have similar charges against them (as Thomas’ lawyer KK Venugopal argued in court) is besides the point. Almost equally irrelevant is the claim made by the outgoing CVC that the corruption case relating to imports of palmolein pending against him in a Kerala court was a result of political rivalry between the state’s former chief minister

K Karunakaran and its current chief minister VS Achuthanandan.

What is worse is that by riding roughshod over the dissenting view expressed by the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, in a three-member committee, the majority (Singh and Chidambaram) may have believed they were adhering to the letter of the law. But they certainly did not adhere to its spirit. Given the fact that there was no unanimity in the panel to select the CVC — even if one assumes that Thomas was not guilty of any wrongdoing — the government could have easily avoided the unseemly controversy by selecting one of the two other IAS officers shortlisted, namely, Bijoy Chatterjee, former secretary, department of chemicals and petrochemicals or S Krishnan, who retired as secretary, fertilisers, as had been suggested by Swaraj.

A Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice SH Kapadia rejected the government’s contention that vigilance clearance granted in 2008 was the basis for empanelment of Thomas. More importantly, the apex court pointed out that the government had not focused on the “larger issue” of the institutional integrity of the office of the CVC and not just the “personal integrity” of an individual. The problem in this case was that the government was not perceived to be above board. Even if Thomas was not the top bureaucrat in the department of telecommunications (DoT) when the alleged spectrum scam occurred, the point simply is his appointment raised a number of doubts about the government’s intentions.

The office of the CVC was conceived as the apex vigilance institution in the government that is supposed to be free of control from any executive authority. The CVC is meant to monitor all anti-corruption activities relating to government bodies and it is also supposed to advise various authorities on “planning, executing, reviewing and reforming” all activities related to anti-corruption vigilance. After the Central Vigilance Commission Act was passed in 2003, the following year, the government passed a resolution on “public interest disclosure and protection of informers” by making the CVC the “designated agency to receive written complaints for disclosure on any allegation of corruption or misuse of office and recommend appropriate action”.

In 1993, the Supreme Court directed the government to ensure that the selection of the CVC should be made by a three-member committee comprising the prime minister, the home minister and the leader of the Opposition. It stated that the selection of the CVC should be made from a panel of “outstanding civil servants and others with impeccable integrity”. The Central Vigilance Commission Ordinance of 1998 — and the bill introduced in Parliament later — confined the selection of the CVC to a “panel of civil servants” alone while the phrases “outstanding” and “impeccable integrity” were not included.

The government’s intentions were questioned because Thomas was appointed as the CVC at a time when the UPA appeared reluctant to expedite the inquiries into the spectrum scam and ask the then communications minister A Raja to put in his papers (which he was subsequently forced to). The Opposition had alleged that Thomas was chosen because he “secured” a note from the law ministry while he was DoT secretary that argues that the allocation of spectrum was part of official “policy” that cannot be questioned either by the CVC or the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India.

The response of the law ministry to the DoT’s queries, quoting various Supreme Court rulings, contended that the CVC, the CAG and “other watchdogs no doubt play a very significant role in any democracy, but they being constitutional/statutory functionaries cannot exceed the role assigned to them under the Constitution or law”. The response added: “Even the courts refrain from questioning the wisdom of the government in policy matters, unless the policy decision is patently arbitrary, discriminatory or mala fide.”

The DoT note to the law ministry on the spectrum allocation issue moved with remarkable alacrity last year between August 10 and 12 from official to official before the signatures of Raja and Thomas were appended. Within a day, on August 13, the law ministry responded to the DoT’s queries. Such expeditiousness is hardly the hallmark of the Indian bureaucracy.

Be that as it may, in appointing Thomas as the head of this important anti-corruption body, the government goofed up badly and is now having to repent.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is a journalist, educator and commentator.

The views expressed by the author are personal.