DOUBTING THOMAS

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Writing on corruption and probity in public life, ancient political theorist Chanakya started with a slightly banal observation in the Arthashastra: “Just as a fish moving deep under water cannot be possibly found out either as drinking or not drinking water,
Then, reflecting darkly on the mysterious opaqueness of the inner wheels of governance, he had a remarkable insight, “It is possible to ascertain the movement of birds flying high in the sky, but it is not possible to ascertain the movement of government servants or their hidden purposes.”

Historians still argue whether the Chanakya of the Arthashastra was really the same Chanakya who is said to have guided Chandragupta Maurya to the throne of the first truly pan-Indian empire but there is no question that his understanding of the sinister-sounding ‘hidden purposes’ of government servants sounds as true for Manmohan Singh’s government as it might have to Mauryan ears.

Consider the knots the government has tied itself in over the curious case of Polayil Joseph Thomas. The Kerala cadre IAS officer was appointed Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) at the height of the hysteria over corruption in the Commonwealth Games, but at a time when telecom was clearly emerging as the next big scandal.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s damning report on spectrum allocations by the Telecom Ministry was about to be made public and you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that there could be a clear conflict of interest between his last job as Telecom Secretary and his new one as India’s vigilance czar.

The controversial 2G allocations were, of course, made before Thomas’ time but critics argue that he did not set Sanchar Bhawan on fire either with a clean-up or with action against 69 of the 122 telecom licencees who did not roll out services as they were required.

In fact, he presided over the Telecom Ministry at a time when it was vigorously questioning if CAG had any power at all to audit the allocation of 2G licences.

But so intent was the government in appointing him CVC that it scored a self-goal by over-ruling the Leader of Opposition who openly dissented. The resulting outcry and ongoing challenge in the Supreme Court has meant that we now have the irony of a Vigilance chief who not only has had to excuse himself from overlooking the greatest corruption scandal of the decade, but also a pending chargesheet against himself.

This is not a judgment on whether Thomas is innocent of the charges against him or not. Indeed, he must be held innocent on every count, unless proven otherwise. This is about propriety in constitutional appointments and upholding basic principles.

The government erred on two counts. First, the very rationale of including the Leader of Opposition in the CVC’s selection committee is to have bipartisan consensus on such a crucial appointment, and to check the government of the day from making a politically motivated choice.

By over-ruling Sushma Swaraj, the government exposed itself to the charge of blatantly fixing appointments when it should have been reassuring the public that it was serious about cleaning up. Why have an Opposition Leader on any selection committee when she will always lose in a majority verdict in any case?

Second, we now have a mea culpa from the Attorney General himself that Thomas’ service record presented before the selection committee did not list that he had decade-old chargesheet still pending in the palmolein oil import scandal. In fact, RTI records show that his service record presented by the Department of Personnel did not mention his tenure as Kerala Food Secretary, when the controversial purchase took place.

This is an astonishing revelation, especially when all personnel records are computerised. Manipulating files is known to be an old bureaucratic trick, but to not have them in order for such a high-profile appointment? Can anyone then be blamed for suspecting ‘the hidden purposes’ of government servants for such a huge oversight?

As the government response moved from an obdurate defence of its choice of CVC, to quiet behind-the-scenes implorations for a resignation, one thing has remained constant: PJ Thomas’ insistence that he is innocent, coupled with the argument that his chargesheet in Kerala was the result of being caught in a political crossfire between the Congress and the Left. May be. Maybe not. We won’t know till we have a judicial verdict.

Meanwhile, surely he can see that the institution he heads will continue to be clouded until he is cleared. Thomas did not appoint himself. The government did and politically speaking, this is a self-made mess. But perhaps the gracious thing to do now is for the CVC to step down, rather than being forced out.