Saturday, March 5, 2011

"An honest man appointed by a dishonest government." Finally, a blessing in disguise.

My article on - The case of P.J.Thomas and the CVC controversy- Myths, misconceptions and the truth. Article published in available on the Front Page on 6-3-2011. Must read for a civil servant/ CS aspirant/ Student of public administration/public law.

An honest man appointed by a dishonest government
Sabareesh Gopala Pillai
The Supreme Court verdict quashing the appointment of Mr. P.J. Thomas as the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (“the CVC”) sets the right precedent that only a person of impeccable integrity, who does not carry a shadow of suspicion irrespective of his personal integrity, should occupy the chair of the CVC in India. Moreover, the High Powered Committee (“the HPC”) constituted to appoint people to such constitutionally ordained positions, should exercise their duties responsibly by considering all relevant material, and even though a consensus may not be necessary, the majority principle cannot be strictly applied to surpass the legality of the decision-making process.

The mainstream media, however, showed a tendency to portray Mr. Thomas as a tainted civil servant. This is flawed since the verdict does not mean that Mr. Thomas is guilty in any way. The Supreme Court wanted the office of the CVC to be beyond suspicion, and did not cast any aspersions on his personal integrity. The three-member Bench commented that they did not wish to make any observations on the pending Palmolein Import case, in which Mr. Thomas is an accused. It was, in fact, the illegality of the decision making process that compelled the Court to hold that his appointment did not exist in the eyes of law. It was the HPC that had failed to consider relevant material - there were no references to prior notes of the Department of Personnel and Training, which had observed that penalty proceedings may be initiated against Mr. Thomas in the Palmolein Import case. Rather than Mr. Thomas, it is the Government that is indicted here for arbitrariness.

Amidst the growing spectrum of scams, this is a direct blow to the Prime Minister who, as de-facto head of the HPC, not only failed to appoint the right candidate but also lowered the dignity of the office of the CVC and was reckless with the reputation of a civil servant. He cannot blame it on the compulsions of coalition politics this time.

The President Pratibha Devisingh Patil administering the oath to Mr. P.J. Thomas as the new Central Vigilance Commissioner, in New Delhi on September 7, 2010.
Image above and on article thumbnail from Press Information Bureau.

Mr. Thomas has an impeccable record of public service except for the fact that his signature happens to be on a file forced on him by his political bosses. An I.A.S. officer of the 1973 batch of the Kerala cadre, Mr. Thomas was listed as the eighth accused in the Palmolein Import case. This case relates to alleged corruption in the import of 1,500 tons of palm oil from Malaysia through a Singapore-based firm in 1992, when Mr. K. Karunakaran, the late Congress stalwart, was the Chief Minister. Mr. Karunakaran was listed as the first accused in the case, and the then Food Minister T.H. Mustafa, the second accused. The case, which is still pending in a Special Court in Thiruvananthapuram, had been registered after a Vigilance Department probe established the Comptroller and Auditor General’s preliminary finding that the state exchequer had suffered losses of around Rupees Two crores, as the deal had been cleared without an appropriate bidding process. Mr. Thomas was made an accused in the case as he held the office of Food Secretary at that time, and was also a Director of the State Civil Supplies Corporation, and was charged with criminal conspiracy. He had implemented a decision of the Karunakaran Cabinet that was then endorsed by his bureaucratic colleagues above and below him, to import 15,000 tons of palm oil at a rate of U.S. Dollars 405 per ton whereas the market price was U.S. Dollars 392.25 per ton.

This story of Mr. P.J. Thomas shows the limitations of civil service activism, especially for officials who occupy top positions, such as the Secretary, and need to sign documents on behalf of the Government but are not involved in the day-to-day operations of its agencies, such as the State Civil Supplies Corporation in this case.

His civil service colleagues have repeatedly asserted that he was an officer of ‘impeccable integrity and honesty’ and a ‘victim of political circumstances, and deeply flawed and motivated investigative processes’. A statement issued recently by the Kerala I.A.S. Officers Association, signed by Industries Secretary T. Balakrishnan, said Mr. Thomas was a victim of delayed judicial process. The fact that the present Left Democratic Front (“LDF”) Government promoted him as Chief Secretary, regardless that it was same establishment that had pursued the palmolein scam legally, has also been cited. Mr. Thomas was also an excellent Chief Electoral Officer, who worked under the then Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh, who was ironically a petitioner before the Supreme Court. Mr. Lyngdoh has since certified that Mr. Thomas is an excellent officer, and asserted that the verdict is an indictment of the Prime Minister and the Home Minister, and not Mr. Thomas. Further, Mr. Thomas was one of the few Managing Directors of the Kerala State Cashew Development Corporation Limited, considered to be one of the most corrupt companies in Kerala for a variety of reasons, who managed the organisation efficiently and with integrity.

The media has also reported that Mr. P.J. Thomas strongly resisted every attempt by the Government to make him tender his resignation after the appointment had been made. There was also intense pressure on him from sections of the media to do so. An upright officer, especially a CVC, should be guided only by the rule of law and not fear, favour, or the influence of anyone. Had he resigned earlier, such a historic verdict may not have been delivered; credit is due to him for not being influenced by the media, the Government, and even popular opinion.

Former Cabinet Secretary T.S.R. Subramanium has remarked that when there is a strong institutional mechanism to assess the service record of bureaucrats, systemic failure is almost impossible, and the chances of malice are high. Perhaps the government wrongly presumed that Mr. Thomas would be the ideal ‘yes man’. By not rendering his resignation at the first instance of scrutiny by the Supreme Court or at the behest of back channel efforts by the Government, he proved that he was no stooge to the dishonest Government. He walked the path of a true public servant, and sacrificed his reputation in the process. As an experienced civil servant, he must have predicted the verdict of the Supreme Court, but he refused to budge and wished only the supreme guardian of the Constitution to deliver a judgment - not on him, but on the appointment to an institution that is the primary watchdog of bureaucratic corruption. No government can now be casual or arbitrary with such appointments. An honest man appointed by a dishonest government turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the country.

Sabareesh Gopala Pillai is a Research Scholar with the University of Kerala.