The choice of the CVC was made only to prove the point that ultimately it is the ruling clique that prevails in such matters, whatever noise the Opposition may generate in protest.
At a time when the whole nation is exercised about how to tackle corruption in the delivery of public services and the management of precious public funds, the Central Vigilance Commission is the last body that should have got embroiled in a major controversy. In my view, the Commission has been deliberately sabotaged by a few small-minded people in the establishment. Not that P.J. Thomas could have greatly helped the ruling coalition to cover up any dubious decision. From my knowledge (that dates back to the halcyon days of a decade ago), the organisation has been a mere paper tiger, yet another adjunct to the Executive. It is meant mainly to accommodate superannuated civil servants, defeating the original purpose of providing meat to the crusade against corruption among public servants.
Even if it is stating the obvious, Mr. Thomas's choice was downright tendentious. It was made only to prove the point that ultimately it is the ruling clique that prevails in such matters, whatever noise the Opposition may generate in protest. Otherwise, I do not think that Mr. Thomas - even if he were to choose to act arbitrarily - could have helped much to suppress vital facts concerning the 2G scam, which the Opposition suspects is the motive behind his installation. Persons in the background who constitute extra-constitutional centres of power, who may have driven hard to bring in Mr. Thomas, must be squirming in their seats. They should reflect whether he was worth the fight, particularly now that he has decided to be stubborn and hold on to the job come what may. This is one area where two basic principles of management, due diligence and cost-benefit analysis, would have persuaded those who call the shots in the ruling group not to root for Mr. Thomas, even long after the scam of his installation had been uncovered.
There are several issues surrounding Mr. Thomas's appointment that only a person who has served in government can appreciate and explain lucidly to the layperson - who is anxious to educate himself but is woefully short of facts. There is a process of empanelling senior officers for Government of India positions in the various Ministries and field offices, such as Joint Secretary and those above that level, from among officers found suitable to hold these important slots. This is a clinical drill by which the unsuitable ones (from the point of view of both ability and integrity) are eliminated, and those whose Personal Files, which carry their annual appraisal, reveal that they have had a uniformly good record of service without any recent blemish, are chosen. This scrutiny definitely makes sure that there is nothing that impinges on an officer's personal integrity when he or she is empanelled. The pendency of departmental action or criminal proceedings, and even a reporting officer's snide remark touching on the honesty of the officer reported on, is good enough to keep an official out of such a panel. When this is the yardstick for even routine and inconsequential jobs, however high the person may be in the hierarchy, it is a travesty of sorts for the government to take the implied stand that a charge sheet in the infamous palmoelin case did not make Mr. Thomas ineligible to be the CVC. It is a sensitive assignment, at least on paper. I am almost certain that the Supreme Court is not amused, and that it will have a lot to say on the ludicrous defence of an appointment that is totally indefensible.
Apart from the empanelment of officers found fit to hold jobs of and above the level of Joint Secretary in the Government of India, short-listing is done for posts such as that of the CBI Director, heads of the Central Police Organisations, and members of the Central Vigilance Commission. The object of such a panel - which will normally contain three names for each position - is to give the Executive enough flexibility to choose a person, who, in its opinion, is the most suitable of the lot.
This is an unexceptionable arrangement. But this is where subjectivity enters the process. While the names are arranged in the order of merit by the select group (normally, but not always, comprising the Cabinet Secretary and the Secretaries of the relevant Ministries) that is entrusted with the job of preparing the panels, the Appointments Committee of Cabinet (ACC), which takes the final decision, is not bound to choose the person who tops the list. (The ACC includes the Prime Minister and the Minister concerned.)
The names in the reckoning are invariably leaked, generating (read, encouraging) lobbying and a rat-race before the crucial decision is made. Very often there is mud-slinging aimed at the lawful and most eligible claimants to a job by their rivals. The one who ultimately gets the nod is made to feel obliged for what is considered a 'favour' done to him or her by the Executive. This is the flip side to the device of empanelment, which was originally conceived to ensure that only the best and the honest got into vital positions in government.
I am sure that Justice J.S. Verma, one of our most illustrious judges who gave the forthright hawala judgment in 1997 that defined the parameters for the composition of the Central Vigilance Commission and the appointment of CBI Director, must be a disillusioned man. However, there is no alternative to the mode of creating panels for the top jobs, as it is the lesser evil compared to arbitrary appointments by a government that does not set much score by traditional values. One is tempted to recall the pre-hawala judgment days when the CBI Director was changed as frequently as one changed a shirt. The longevity of a Director in those eminently forgettable days was just a few months, compared to the present tenure of two years. Admittedly, a fixed tenure does not necessarily bring in total independence. But at least it gives some courage to a feisty incumbent to stand up to it when faced with unreasonable, and sometimes downright illegal, demands made on him or her by an unscrupulous government.
When the Supreme Court laid down in 1997 that the Leader of the Opposition should be involved in the process of choosing a CVC, it would not have dreamt that the country would reach a stage of incivility where the views of the former would be totally brushed aside and a choice imposed on the nation. Consensus was implied, but definitely not steamrolling of the kind that has been witnessed in Mr. Thomas's case.
When it gave the hawala ruling, the Supreme Court rightly believed that at this dizzy level of authority, responsibility and accountability, grace and public spirit, would prevail over narrow political considerations. Sadly, that belief has been totally belied. In making such a vital choice, a brute majority cannot rule over dissent in a democracy such as ours, whatever the motive behind such dissent.
The Attorney-General's admission that the facts of Mr. Thomas's involvement in the palmoelin case were not placed before the selection committee compounds the impropriety of ignoring the Leader of the Opposition. The failure to place all the relevant facts before the committee is shocking, and makes the civil servants who were responsible for preparing papers for the discussions culpable. However, I am not willing to buy any theory that this was a mere slip-up and not an act of dishonesty. I am also intrigued over why Sushma Swaraj was not more explicit when she opposed Mr. Thomas's appointment. Only the affidavit that she has now threatened to file before the Supreme Court can throw light on this aspect.
I am sure some heads in government are going to roll. My only anxiety is that some straightforward civil servant in the Department of Personnel and Training should not be made the scapegoat. I do not rule out this possibility, knowing as I do how governments operate on the basis of political expediency rather than considerations of civil service morale. The Supreme Court is certainly watching closely, much to the discomfiture of those who had erred, that too unpardonably.
(The writer is a former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.)