On the face of it, the Supreme Court’s verdict on Thursday against the appointment of Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) PJ Thomas may look relatively tame compared to the other recent knocks that the government has been taking incessantly on its chin. After all, unlike the cases of corruption involving former Union minister A Raja in the 2G scam or Congressman Suresh Kalmadi in the Commonwealth Games scam, there is no criminal charge that the court has upheld or prodded the authorities to investigate into. However, precisely because it is not an individual but the government that has been brought to the dock this time, the matter is far more serious and damaging for a government that has been battling serious hygiene issues already.
The Supreme Court has pronounced the government’s choice of Mr Thomas and the manner in which he was appointed as illegal. Responding to a public interest litigation questioning the appointment, the court has clearly stated that the institutional and personal integrity of the CVC is vital. In this context, the appointment of Mr Thomas should never have been considered in the first place. With a pending case against him and official recommendations for action to be taken against him, the now departed CVC was neither spotless nor was he given a clean chit. The dissent from the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj, who along with the prime minister’s office and the home ministry formed the high-powered committee that nominated the CVC, was not considered. Now the apex court has backed the dissenting voice, adding the decisive point that the committee failed to consider ‘relevant material’ recommending action against Mr Thomas.
For a government aware of the need to fill the ‘ethical deficit’ in governance, the larger issue of institutional integrity of the office of the CVC was brushed aside. This is not about harbouring a rotten apple but actually appointing one. The firefighting that has already started could have been avoided. But now, with the horse having already bolted, it is for the government to convince not only the Opposition but also the nation at large whether it chose to ignore the blots on Mr Thomas’s CV, or was misled into appointing him in this crucial position. Either way, it has a tough job at hand. The court’s verdict could deliver a moral — if not a political — knock-out blow for a government fighting almost every day to look clean.