By quashing the appointment of P.J. Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner, the Supreme Court has brought to a dignified end a shameful episode that highlighted the United Progressive Alliance government's lack of respect for institutional integrity. The verdict is a serious indictment of the government at the highest level because the selection of Mr. Thomas was made by a panel that included the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister. Adding further force to the severity of the blow is the fact that these two members had overruled what, in the final analysis, turned out to be a valid objection by the third member, the Leader of the Opposition. From the beginning of this litigation, it was clear to everyone but the Manmohan Singh regime that it was defending the indefensible, and that Mr. Thomas, who has been charge sheeted in a corruption case, could not have been made the country's premier watchdog against corruption. Moreover, he had been Telecommunications Secretary just prior to his appointment as CVC. This raised doubt about the impartiality of his supervisory role over the Central Bureau of Investigation, which is investigating the 2G spectrum allocation scam. Yet, with a chutzpah that has now become a hallmark of this ruling coalition — a quality displayed brazenly until judicial intervention jolts it back to its legal senses — the appointment was sought to be justified before the court. The government compounded the amorality of its position by resorting to the legally untenable contention that even the absence of “the full facts” concerning Mr. Thomas before the High Powered Committee did not vitiate the appointment.
By declaring the appointment non est in law, the highest court in the land has served a reminder to the executive that it is not enough to have an institutional mechanism for high appointments but that it should be allowed to function in a credible manner. Mr. Thomas has maintained all along that the conspiracy charge against him in a corruption case — dating back to the 1990s and relating to the import of palmolein by a Congress-led government in Kerala — was a by-product of political rivalry. It is a fact that the proceedings in the trial court were stayed for years by the Supreme Court and revived only recently, following the death of former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran, a co-accused who had obtained the stay. Mr. Thomas will get the benefit of due process and nothing connected with the unsavoury circumstances of his appointment as CVC can be allowed to weaken his defence in the case. However, there is little doubt that he leaves his office with the taint of having clung on to his chair in the face of grave doubts about his suitability, embarrassing questions from the judiciary, and damage to the institution of CVC.