It took a nudge from Sushma Swaraj, the Leader of the Opposition, for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to admit in Parliament that he had made an “error of judgment” in appointing P.J. Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner. Although Dr. Singh can be given credit for allowing himself to be coaxed into reiterating his acceptance of full responsibility for the appointment, which was set aside by a censorious Supreme Court, his statement throws no further light on the shameful episode. How did it come about that a senior civil servant charge-sheeted in a corruption case was chosen as the country's top anti-corruption watchdog? Were the Prime Minister and the Home Minister, who were part of the three-member selection committee that appointed Mr. Thomas, really unaware of this? Why did they not apply their minds to the objections raised by Ms. Swaraj who, as the third member of the committee, specifically raised the issue of the pending charges against Mr. Thomas in the palmolein import case? Was there pressure from any quarter to make Mr. Thomas CVC? Answering these questions is vital to institutional integrity.
The little we know officially about the circumstances that led to Mr. Thomas' appointment is a piece of obfuscation. This is in the form of Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati's laboured submission in the Supreme Court that the Department of Personnel had failed to place the full facts about Mr. Thomas, or the relevant “papers and file,” before the selection committee. This sounded like a lame attempt to absolve the Prime Minister and Home Minister of accountability by making out that the appointment was a result of bureaucratic inefficiency or oversight. As we have made clear in earlier editorials, Mr. Thomas is entitled to a fair trial under the procedure established by law and no presumption of guilt should be attached to his part in the palmolein import case. What is scandalous is the government's decision to shield him and ipso facto protect itself against the fierce criticism about the highly coloured circumstances under which he was selected for the post. After the Supreme Court quashed his appointment and indicted the government for attempting to defend the indefensible, the least Dr. Singh should have furnished was a detailed account of how or why he was led into 'error'. An acceptance of responsibility is a step forward but insufficient. The proper course for a Prime Minister with a reputation for personal financial integrity would be to square with Parliament and the public on what it was that made him and his senior government colleague insist on, and rush through, the appointment of Mr. Thomas in defiance of morality, the law, and common sense.