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The lowdown on high offices

A committee headed by the Prime Minister and comprising the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha and the home minister would be given a list of names to decide on appointing one of the three-four officers to lead the Central Vigilance Commission. Aloke Tikku reports. CVC: Genesis and evolution

delhi Updated: Dec 14, 2010 01:13 IST
Aloke Tikku
Aloke Tikku
Hindustan Times

It wasn't perfect. But it did come pretty close.

A committee headed by the Prime Minister and comprising the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha and the home minister would be given a list of names to decide on appointing one of the three-four officers to lead the central vigilance commission (CVC).

The formula was expected to ensure that key positions in the country's anti-corruption watchdog for bureaucrats would be manned by officers with bipartisan support. The underlying assumption was that this would be possible only if the officer's integrity and impartiality were beyond doubt.

But the ongoing controversy over the selection of PJ Thomas as central vigilance commissioner, however, has raised a question mark over the implementation of this selection procedure if not the procedure itself, first spelt out by the Supreme Court in the 1997 Vineet Narain judgment.

In this case, PM Manmohan Singh ignored Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj's dissent note opposing Thomas — an accused in the Kerala palmolein oil scandal — for the key post of the anti-graft watchdog.

Some government leaders suggest it was unfair to expect all appointments by consensus since this would give the opposition the power to veto officers on whom the Centre is keen.

Not everyone is, however, convinced by the argument since it only provides a level playing field. "If the government has a favourite in the list of three people, it might as well appoint him," a government official acknowledges. Besides, the government too exercises its right to veto officers when shortlisting them.

Former civil servant Jayaprakash Narayan agrees.

"If the opposition leader had a genuine objection as in this case, the government shouldn't have made the appointment," said Narayan, a former member of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission.

The controversy over Thomas is only symptomatic of the increasing number of questions being raised about the men and women appointed to high offices.

In January 2009, then Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami asked President Pratibha Devisingh Patil to remove then Election Commissioner Navin Chawla, citing instances of Chawla's "partisan behaviour" and "lack of political neutrality".

Chawla, who was tipped to take over as CEC (and he did so), was widely considered close to the Congress; just as Gopalaswami — who had acted on complaints from BJP leader LK Advani and more than 170 NDA MPs — was known for his proximity to BJP leaders including Advani.

In recent years, cases have come to light that the conduct of quite a few judges who had risen to become Chief Justice of India may not have been above board. Former law minister Shanti Bhushan faces contempt of court for alleging that eight of the former 16 Chief Justices of India were "definitely corrupt", pushing an ongoing debate on changes in the way India selects judges.

"Bodies such as the Election Commission and the judiciary have been able to withstand the attacks due to the institutional strength and their high public esteem," said Narayan, who quit the IAS after 16 years of service to lead the Andhra Pradesh-headquartered Lok Satta Party.

"But once this sheen wears off, we are finished… Imagine what would happen if people stop respecting the judiciary and it delivers judgments on emotive issues … caste quota, a religious structure or division of water and land," he said, backing the setting up of an independent commission under a constitutional mandate to decide on appointments to high offices.

It is no coincidence that civil servants — serving or retired — man almost every constitutional and statutory post. Or that most of such posts have very liberal eligibility conditions that can cover any senior All India Service officer.

Shekhar Singh, who has lectured senior civil servants for more than two decades at the Indian Institute for Public Administration, however, believes it might be simpler to reconstitute the selection committee for all key posts. The Prime Minister would continue to chair them but the opposition leader and the chief justice should be the other two members, he suggested.

But Singh, who interacts closely with the civil service, isn't too sure if tweaking the system alone would help. Most bureaucrats who reach the top bend over backwards for post-retirement jobs and find their way into shortlists to be considered by such high-powered panels are either weak or have a status-quoist perspective, which they call being a realist.

"If the government makes a mistake and appoints someone as TN Seshan, who flexed his muscles once he took over as chief election commissioner, the government will find a way to control them." So Seshan got two more colleagues, making the Election Commission a multi-member body to clip his wings.

At the heart of the problem, Singh insists, is that the government does not feel that it needs independent monitors. It isn't without reason that the powers of an independent body are inversely proportional to the reputation of the officers leading them. The stronger the body, the more malleable the appointee is likely to be. The carrot of the post-retirement stint ensures he is compromised before even taking over. "You could call it crony bureaucratism".

First Published: Dec 14, 2010 01:06 IST