The CVC Fiasco : The Appointee Has Lost His Job,  the ‘Masters’ Must also Lose theirs!

Dipankar Bhattacharya


Six months after appointing PJ Thomas as the Central vigilance Commissioner, on March 7 Manmohan Singh told the Lok Sabha that the appointment was an error of judgement. The PM’s admission of course came only after the Supreme Court struck down the appointment on 3 March as being illegal and arbitrary. Till that moment the government adamantly defended the appointment in the face of a growing public outcry. The Prime Minister even advised the judiciary to stay within its limits and not intrude into the domains of the legislature or executive. At one stage Home Minister P Chidambaram, one of the three members of the High Power Committee alongside the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, even sought to argue that the government was not aware of Mr. Thomas being chargesheeted in the palmolein scam that had rocked Kerala in the early 1990s.
Evidently, the government has been defeated on the issue of appointment of the CVC and the PM who blames coalition compulsions for every pressing problem now haunting the country – be it soaring prices or unbridled corruption – is now trying to put up a brave face by describing it as ‘an error of judgement’ and taking ‘full responsibility’ for the error. Sushma Swaraj, the vocal BJP leader and the third member of the High Power Committee who had submitted a dissenting note when Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram pushed for Thomas as the CVC, says that the matter should now be over with the PM accepting responsibility. She also says she has the backing of her party president in suggesting this truce. So the BJP, the party that claims to be waging a war on corruption is not interested in pursuing the subject any more. The reason is perhaps not difficult to understand – after all, those living in glass houses must exercise a lot of caution if at all they have to throw a stone or two.
The Congress and the BJP may have their reasons to arrive at a tacit understanding not to push the issue any further, but there are clearly major questions involved that are crying out for an answer. The Central Vigilance Commission is supposed to be the apex anti-corruption agency in the country and when the High Power Committee was dealing with the issue of appointment of the CVC, the question of corruption in high places had already acquired disturbing prominence in public discussion. Against such a backdrop the UPA government could think of appointing nobody as CVC other than PJ Thomas who is a named accused in the Kerala palmolein case pending in the Court of the Special Judge, Thiruvananthapuram, for offences under sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 and Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code. As food secretary of the Karunakaran government, in 1992 Thomas had signed the import order for 15,000 tonnes of palm oil from a Singapore-based Malaysian firm at a rate much higher than the prevailing international price.
Quite interestingly, even as Thomas was chargesheeted in 2000, he went on to occupy important positions in the Kerala bureaucracy, becoming Chief Secretary to the Kerala Government in 2007 before being catapulted to the capital, first as secretary to the Parliamentary Affairs ministry in 2009 and then as telecom secretary till he was appointed CVC in September 2010. Karunakaran had successfully obtained a stay order from the Supreme Court to stall the case at the lower court and it is only after Karunakaran’s death that the Supreme Court lifted the stay allowing the case to be resumed. As telecom secretary, Thomas presided over the 3G auction, but quite crucially he also secured a favourable nod from the law ministry to try and stop the CAG investigations into the 2G scam.
The issue is not whether Thomas is personally corrupt – it is his role as a facilitator of corruption that should have made him eminently ineligible for the post of the CVC. Yet the UPA government chose to reward this loyal bureaucrat with the assignment of the country’s Chief Vigilance Commissioner! Given this track record of Mr. Thomas, his appointment as the CVC, defying a dissenting opinion within the HPC, could not possibly have been a simple ‘error of judgement’ as Manmohan Singh would now like us to believe. On the contrary, there is every reason to suspect that it was part of a larger design to have a loyal and suitable CVC to save the government when it finds itself under the cloud of massive scams.
The Thomas episode also shows how institutions are being systematically devalued and subverted in our system. It should be noted that in a judgment issued on 18 December 1997, the Supreme Court had called for making the CVC a statutory body “entrusted with the responsibility of superintendence over the CBI’s functioning”. The Prime Minister’s admission of “an error of judgement” in the appointment of the CVC is therefore a crucial lapse with ramifications for the entire investigative process in the system.

A government caught red-handed while playing with the highest institutions in the country can claim no right to continue in office. Heads must roll. If the CVC has had to go, the government that thrust this illegal appointment on the country must also follow suit. For those who value probity in public life and would like to see a degree of institutional accountability, the present juncture is nothing short of a wake-up call. We must rise and act decisively to banish corruption, and to banish corruption we must challenge the political climate that fosters and rewards corruption.