His Majesty's Views

Defending the indefensible

If the different scams have not brought enough embarrassment, the government brought on itself further embarrassment and criticism by appointing a person facing a chargesheet in a court as the chief vigilance commissioner (CVC) of the country. It would look not only amusing but also strange for any right thinking person to have a spectacle of a person accused of corruption being vested with the task of being a watchdog on corruption. The inexplicable misery is how the government was trying to defend itself amidst political criticism and judicial scrutiny by the apex court.

P J Thomas who was the food secretary in Kerala was a co-accused in the palmolein import case which was pending for a long time. When Thomas was appointed as the CVC, several eyebrows were raised. Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, who was a member of the three-member selection committee, had raised an objection on his nomination and was believed to have told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Home Minister, the other two members of the committee, that she disapproved of appointing Thomas but was okay with the other two names and any one of the two could be appointed as the CVC. The other two members overruled Sushma Swaraj and went ahead with the appointment of Thomas as the CVC.

Thomas’ name surfaced again in a controversy when the CAG report on the 2G spectrum allocation scandal hit the headlines. He was the telecom secretary when CAG started investigating the 2G spectrum allocation issue and Thomas had questioned the authority of CAG to look into this issue saying that it was a policy matter and does not come under the purview of CAG.

The appointment of Thomas as CVC was challenged in the Supreme Court and the initial proceedings suggested that the apex court was questioning the credibility of the appointment. Under attack, the government was pushed to the backfoot. The government and the Congress defended the decision by saying that a mere chargesheet would not disqualify a person. They also said Thomas has been cleared by the Vigilance Commission earlier and even the Left Front in Kerala, which was attacking Thomas now, had promoted him as the chief secretary earlier. The Congress also said the three-member selection panel need not take a unanimous decision and that a majority would suffice.

In spite of the brave defence, the embarrassment was quite obvious and at one point it looked as though the party would persuade Thomas to step down. Being a constitutional authority, the only way to remove the CVC was through a process of impeachment, though it is a cumbersome and an unlikely occurrence. Somehow, Thomas did not oblige and continued in the post. This was despite the Supreme Court virtually declaring him unacceptable as the court asked the CVC to keep off on the ongoing investigations of the CBI on the 2G spectrum allocation scandal.

The government made a curious admission in the Supreme Court January 27 in the resumed hearing on the CVC appointment case. The Attorney General told the court that the fact that Thomas was facing a chargesheet in a court was not placed before the selection panel. This virtually marks a change of stand as no official word was so far said that this aspect was not considered by the selection panel.

The BJP and Susma Swaraj have repeatedly told the nation that she had objected to the name of Thomas in view of the palmolein case. There was also an interesting turn of events that made the Attorney General to clarify that he did not know if the committee discussed the case pending against Thomas. In all, the embarrassment to the government was complete.

Facing scam after scam and heat from the apex court on the black money issue and Thomas’ appointment, the Government of India is on the backfoot. The credibility of even the Prime Minister has been brought into question especially in the matter of the appointment of the CVC, as he is the member of the selection team and has overruled the objection of the Leader of the Opposition. The government would be well-advised at least to rid of one thorny issue by the removal of Thomas as the f country’s top vigilance man. Of course, that would depend on Thomas obliging by stepping down. The sooner he does the better.

Jan 29, 2011
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