For a government already on the mat, the Supreme Court order last week nixing the appointment of central vigilance commissioner (CVC) P.J. Thomas came as another humiliating blow. The court raised serious questions on the Manmohan Singh government selecting someone chargesheeted in a corruption case as the country’s seniormost officer fighting the vice—even calling it “illegal”. Thomas was selected in September 2010 by a committee consisting of the PM, Union home minister P. Chidambaram and leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj even though the latter had recorded her dissent and gone public with it. (The Kerala palmolein import scam in which Thomas, as food secretary then, was originally eighth accused dates back to 1991-92.)
Political correspondents are generally cynical about the breed they report on and March 3, the day the judgement came, the joke at the media briefing was whether the PM could still work his oft-quoted line that Caesar’s wife should be above reproach. Would the PM now take moral responsibility and quit? Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi brushed aside the repeated query. So is there no principle of moral responsibility any longer? Singhvi replied that “everything that is legally wrong is not morally wrong”. It seems the moral universe of the Congress has shrunk considerably in the last few months.
Clearly, the Congress has little choice but to brazen it out although there are apprehensions that things could get worse. The government is expected to make a statement in Parliament on the issue next week and the Opposition will surely launch a full-throttle attack after. At the time of writing, it was not confirmed whether the PM himself would speak. For Manmohan, it will certainly be a case of defending the indefensible and in this case he can’t even blame “coalition dharma” for the dubious decision. Says former chief justice of India J.S. Verma, “It is astonishing that the government went in for a person like this when there were enough reasons not to do so. I was amazed by the government argument that being an accused in a criminal case of corruption does not erode the impeccable integrity required for a CVC. Is the country so denuded of persons of integrity?”
Ex-CVC Pratyush Sinha, who held the post before Thomas, feels the episode has “dented the image of the CVC. In appointments to key posts, we have to be very careful and due diligence must be thorough. I have stated that no vigilance clearance was sought or given by the CVC in the case of Mr Thomas. Vigilance reports are not given per se. In the normal course of events, the CVC gives it when asked based on the information given by the cadre controlling authority”.
Meanwhile, initial Opposition reactions suggest that they are unlikely to demand the PM’s resignation on the issue. Indeed, there are fears that if the rhetoric is too shrill, a weakened PM may actually offer to do so—which would not exactly suit the Opposition. No one wants an election now and a PM who’s lost his sheen suits the situation. Besides, there is a belief that within the Congress itself there is a great deal of confusion and that thwarted ambitions are again likely to raise their heads. As NDA chairman L.K. Advani puts it, “What is the point of asking for the PM’s resignation? It is for the government to introspect. And we know that while parties may have a view on early elections, individual MPs do not.” According to him, the Thomas affair had been brewing for some time. When he was Opposition leader, he had a meeting with Manmohan and then home minister Shivraj Patil who raised the issue of making Thomas CVC. Objections had been raised then too, and in fact Prithviraj Chavan (then minister in the PMO and now Maharashtra CM) had apparently tried to persuade Advani to rethink the matter.
Later, in September 2010, Sushma Swaraj had a direct disagreement with Chidambaram on the issue. On September 3 last year, the home minister is believed to have argued strongly for Thomas at a meeting of the selection panel. The PM kept silent but at the end when Sushma insisted she would write a dissent note, he spoke up and told her to go ahead and do so. Prithviraj was brought in to prepare the note.
At a press conference some time later, the home minister admitted that there was a disagreement. When asked by a reporter why the government chose a candidate who was chargesheeted, Chidambaram had responded: “I respect your right to hold a point of view. Similarly you should also respect our right to hold a point of view. The matter is actively subjudice.” At the time the appointment of Thomas had already been challenged with a PIL in the SC.
Why did the government go out of its way to appoint such a controversial individual to such a critical constitutional post? There are no clear answers although there are suggestions that this was linked to the can of worms opening up in the 2G spectrum. Thomas had been telecom secretary in 2009-10 when A. Raja headed the ministry. The obvious inference seems to be that the government was looking for a CVC who could cover up the corruption instead of exposing it. What’s more, the three officers (including Thomas) in the original shortlist presented to Sushma had all served under ministers who came into the UPA from the DMK quota. But since there were no charges against the other two, Sushma had said they could be considered or the list of names expanded. But the government was quite determined in pushing for Thomas.
So, yet again the UPA-II has egg on its face. And if we believe the buck stops with the PM, then the going is likely to become particularly tough for Manmohan. RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal says in all the scams to surface so far, the PM has said he was in the dark. “In the Thomas affair, the PM cannot take that plea as he was the chair of a committee which appointed him and must have been privy to all the information and background about the man he was appointing. The questions that need an urgent answer are: was the PM acting under external pressure and why did he appoint Thomas despite being privy to all the information about him?”
These are serious charges. Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research stops short of asking the PM to quit. But he says that “there is no plausible deniability in this issue. There is no excuse in this case”. Arun Jaitley, Opposition leader in the Upper House, asks, “Was the PM misled or did he choose to mislead himself?”
So will there be an upheaval in the Congress and are we seeing the beginning of the end of the Manmohan Singh era? Not if we go by the bravado from the party spokespersons. The day the SC judgement came, Abhishek Singhvi waxed eloquent about the Congress prospects in the upcoming assembly elections. “The Congress and UPA go into these elections with their heads held high,” he said continuing on “the great public support” and the process of “maximum growth” which is moving the party “towards victory”. The assembly polls are the lifeline the Congress is currently clinging to, hoping the disenchantment at the Centre and the fallen idols of government will be forgotten by a magical result in the four states.
By Saba Naqvi with Anuradha Raman