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Mainsteam, Vol XLIX, No 12, March 12, 2011

On PM’s Response to SC Verdict on CVC

Editorial

Wednesday 16 March 2011, by SC

The Manmohan Singh Government has had to suffer the ignominy of having made P.J. Thomas the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) with the Supreme Court having struck down, in its verdict on the issue on March 3, the appointment on the ground that the high-powered selection committee (HPC), which chose Thomas for the post through a majority vote, had completely overlooked the chargesheet against the former Chief Secretary of Kerala for the latter’s involve-ment in a corruption case related to the import of palm oil. The import of 15,000 tonnes of palm oil (at an allegedly inflated price resulting in a Rs 2.32 crore loss to the exchequer) took place when Thomas was the Food and Civil Supplies Secretary in the State.

Following monthlong legal proceedings, the three-member SC Bench, headed by Chief Justice Sarosh Kapadia, in its 71-page judgment, held that the HPC’s selection of Thomas for the high constitutional office was “non-est in law (‘non-est’ is something that does not exist) and consequently the appointment of P.J. Thomas as Chief Vigilance Commissioner is quashed”.

The judgment of the Apex Court has come as a blow to the government already reeling under multiple scams, notably those related to the 2G spectrum allocation and Commonwealth Games. Responding to the verdict the PM publicly took personal responsibility for the appointment and subsequently told Parliament that he did not know of the corruption charge against Thomas until Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj raised the matter at the HPC meeting of September 3, 2010; however, he went ahead with Thomas’ appointment as the CVC at the meeting because he thought that (as he explained in reply to MPs seeking clarifications on the subject) since the officer had been the Chief Secretary of Kerala and held charge of two departments in the Government of India, “all legitimate vigilance matters must have already been looked into”. He also sought to put the onus on former Minister of State in the Department of Personnel and Training and present Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan saying that the note prepared by the DoPT had not mentioned of the palm oil case against Thomas; at the same time, in the face of repeated questioning, the PM insisted that he alone, “as the Minister in charge of the DoPT”, should be held accountable for whatever had happened. Chavan, on his part, concurred with the PM’s stand on the note and tried to lay the blame on the LDF Governmeent in Kerala saying the vigilance inquiry by the State had cleared Thomas’ name when he was made the Chief Secretary in the State and again when he was sent to the Centre as a Secretary in the Governmeent of India. However, the Kerala Government disclosed that letters had been sent to the Centre asking for sanction to prosecute Thomas but the Union Governmeent was not keen to grant the sanction.

Definitely the issue has placed the Manmohan Singh Government on the defensive and further dented its image. The PM’s position too has been further weakened by his statements. (Interestingly while the government is saying that the exercise to find an ‘acting CVC’ has begun Thomas himself has till date not resigned from the CVC’s post!)

On several fronts, like the hostage crisis (the expiry of the deadline set by the Somali pirates holding Indian sailors captive) the government is clearly on the backfoot and receiving flak from the Opposition. There is lately a growing feeling among large sections of the public that the government at the Centre is really not in control of the situation, and this comes out in bold relief whenever serious problems assume crisis pro-portions.

Meanwhile the Hasan Ali case of massive tax evasion has once again highlighted the enormity of corruption afflicting the polity at large. Against this backdrop the government’s attitude in tackling corruption appears to be at best half-hearted.

But why concentrate only on the government and politicians in this regard? What about the judiciary? On many questions of vital import the judiciary’s role has been by and large commen-dable no doubt; however, the former Chief Justice of India’s behaviour and activities have caused consternation among the people in general, especially when he continues to hold on to the office of the head of the National Human Rights Commission.

At the same time the insecurity of young girls in the Capital city has once more come out in sharp relief with the brutal killing of a college student in broad daylight in a busy street on the International Women’s Day. This is how the image of the country on the global plane is being damaged; and the guardians of law and order remain blissfully unconcerned. Hopefully vehement protests by the student community, and the girl students in particular, would force them to wake up from their slumber.

In the midst of all these events the Election Commission has announced the schedule for Assembly elections in several States. The rift between the DMK and Congress on seat-sharing for the Tamil Nadu polls had initially threatened the ruling UPA with the former’s announcement that it was pulling out its representatives from the Union Council of Ministers, but the issue has since been sorted out with the Congress President taking a firm stand against her ally’s politics of brink-manship. But seat-sharing is posing problems in West Bengal too though the indications are that the Trinamul Congress (which, in the Congress’ company, is all set to humble the ruling Left Front after 34 years) would ultimately reach an electoral understanding with the Congress. But the prospects of escalating violence during the election campaign and the conduct of polls in the State are quite strong. (So also is the apprehension of terrorist strikes in cities in coastal India with the objective of derailing the World Cup Cricket tournament thus besmirching India’s name in the international sports arena.)

Overall, therefore, the national scene presents a dismal picture. The recent developments in Pakistan—where, after the Punjab Governor, the Minister for Minority Affairs (the sole Christian in the government) has been brutally gunned down for having advocated changes in the country’s blasphemy law—are no less depressing and pose a major challenge to secular democracy in our region as a whole.

March 10 S.C.

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