New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the controversial appointment of P.J. Thomas as central vigilance commissioner.
The apex court’s decision is a fresh setback for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and also raises questions on the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been under fire for his handling of controversies and corruption charges against the government.
The court also directed the government to overhaul the selection procedure to avoid any such anomalies in future appointments. Holding that the touchstone for the appointment of the commissioner is the “institutional integrity” as well as the personal integrity of the candidate, the court faulted the high-powered committee’s (HPC) decision to appoint Thomas on grounds of “arbitrariness” and “ignoring relevant materials”.
While the government maintained a united face publicly, saying the appointment was a “systemic failure”, internal blame games have already begun to ring-fence the Prime Minister—a move which political analysts said could be “doubly bad” for an embattled government under fire for its failure to tackle corruption, spiralling food prices as well as for its poor governance record.
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Thomas, who previously served in the Kerala state government, was made the central vigilance commissioner on 7 September by HPC comprising Singh, home minister P. Chidambaram and leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj.
Swaraj had given a dissent note on Thomas’ appointment.
The court reasoned that HPC as well as the selection committee, which recommends candidates for selection, put too much emphasis on the biodata of those under consideration for the job, and therefore, did not consider the important fact that Thomas had a pending criminal case against him in Kerala. He had been charged in 2000 over his role in allegedly fraudulent imports of palm oil from Malaysia when he was a civil servant in Kerala in the 1990s.
Denying that the quashing of the appointment was an embarrassment to the government or to the Prime Minister, law minister M. Veerappa Moily said: “It’s a judicial review of the executive action. This is a failure of a system in the government and we need to address that and move forward. It certainly is not a reflection on the collegium (or HPC),”
He added: “If every judicial review of executive actions is taken as a slap to the government, no government can function in this country. In parliamentary democracy, we have to trust an institution,” he said, referring to the former central vigilance commissioner’s clearance to Thomas’ name for the post.
Moily also pointed out that the ruling clarified that there was no need for “consensus” for the appointment.
The bench headed by Chief Justice of India S.H. Kapadia ruled that the three-member HPC did not have to unanimously agree on a candidate as this would amount to conferring a “veto right” on the minority.
However, the senior ministers were divided over who should take responsibility for “the embarrassment”. While one section believes that the goof-up took place on bad advice by the home ministry, others said the Prime Minister, as head of the government and part of the panel, should own up responsibility.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, said such squabbling would diminish the image of the government further. “If there is any internal squabbling in the party over the issue, it will be doubly bad for the government because it will diminish the authority of the Prime Minister. At the end of the day, he was a signatory to the decision. Whether the Prime Minister was misled procedurally or intentionally is immaterial here,” he added.
“It will project the fact that the government is in disarray,” Mehta, also a columnist, said, adding that in the present context, this would be an embarrassment to the government.
In another development, the department of personnel and training has put the responsibility on state governments for providing correct information about the candidate for the central vigilance commissioner’s post.
In a response to a Right to Information query, the department claimed the biodata of Thomas was generated on the basis of inputs provided by the state government.
Meanwhile, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) welcomed the court’s decision and chose to blame the Prime Minister for the lapse. “The judgment of the Supreme Court has restored the dignity of the office of CVC and upheld the rule of law and democratic propriety... The appointment was done by this government in which the Prime Minister has a direct role to play,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, party spokesperson.
The Congress, however, was on the defensive. “It is completely wrong to politicize what is a legal verdict based on legal considerations... I disagree your generalization that what is legally wrong is morally wrong,” said party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi.
The law minister also said that the government would work out a more foolproof formula for such appointments with “due diligence” and taking into consideration the directions of the apex court. The court on Thursday issued special directions for future appointments, including not restricting the post of the central vigilance commissioner to civil servants.
Anuja and Ruhi Tewari of Mint, and PTI contributed to this story.