The CVC fiasco

The Manmohan Singh government, which is already reeling under multiple scams—from 2G to CWG —was dealt a body-blow when the Supreme Court struck down the Prime Minister and home minister P Chidambaram’s decision to appoint P J Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC). In one of the most significant judgments delivered by any Indian court in recallable memory, Chief Justice of India (CJI) Sarosh H Kapadia, while reading out the relevant portions of the 71-page ruling before a packed courtroom, faulted the high-powered selection committee (HPC) for not considering the pending chargesheet against Thomas in a corruption case related to the import of palm oil while he was food and civil supplies secretary in Kerala. PM Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram had, on September 3, 2010, overruled Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj by a majority vote in favour of having Thomas as CVC. In a stunning climax to a months-long legal and political drama, Justice Kapadia’s booming voice rang out to declare that the HPC’s selection of Thomas was “non-est in law (something that does not exist) and, consequently, the appointment of P J Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner is quashed.” A bench comprising the CJI and Justices K S Radhakrishnan and Swatanter Kumar said if the selection of a candidate as CVC adversely affected the institutional competency and functioning of CVC, it was the duty of the committee not to recommend such a candidate. The court said Thomas’s continuance as CVC would seriously dent the image and stature of the anti-corruption watchdog. It defined the CVC loftily as the “Integrity Commission of India”, to which only a person without a blemish should be appointed. The selection to a sensitive post like CVC can’t be made on the basis of a bare bio-data, the court said. Thomas’s bio, it pointed out, didn’t tell the members about the pending palmolein chargesheet or the six file notings on the records of the department of personnel and training (DoPT) for initiation of penal action against him.
A day after the Supreme Court shamed the government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has accepted responsibility for the court striking down the appointment of P J Thomas as central vigilance commissioner. This is quite unlike the 2G scam, which he blamed on compromises required for running a coalition government.The Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj took a soft line, “I appreciate the statement of the prime minister owning responsibility for the appointment of CVC which has been quashed by Supreme Court. I think this is enough. Let matters rest at this and we move forward,“ Swaraj said on Twitter, soon after the PM’s admission of responsibility for the CVC's appointment came in from Jammu.
The controversy that has cost P J Thomas his job as chief vigilance commissioner involved a specific procedural lapse in his role as Kerala’s food secretary in the early 1990s, but officials say it helped speed up the import of much-needed edible oil and saved the state Rs 8.5 crore in foreign exchange. Thomas had issued an order to import palmolein from Malaysia as per a decision of the state cabinet headed by late K Karunakaran. However, as per procedure, he had not consulted the state finance department before placing the issue before the Cabinet. The proposal to import palmolein went directly to the Cabinet as an “out of agenda” item to save time. ‘‘He was under pressure to move fast from the chief minister and food minister T H Mustaffa and a senior official who informed him that the finance minister Oommen Chandy had already concurred,’’ said an officer who worked in the same department. Oommen Chandy also endorsed the view that Thomas was only implementing a Cabinet decision and that the Supreme Court order was very unfortunate. ‘‘We had to rush the decision through Cabinet because, among the five states which had been granted permission to import palmolein, Kerala was the only one left to complete the procedures. And the state was in desperate need to import palm oil.’’ Chandy said of those five states, Kerala had obtained the second lowest price after Tamil Nadu. ‘‘In fact, the state stood to gain about Rs 8.5 crore through that import. And the case has been going on for the last 19 years, and Thomas has not been found guilty by any court so far. His appointment has been set aside just because he is an accused, who is still on trial.’’

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