The Supreme Court on Thursday quashed the six-month-old appointment of chief vigilance commissioner (CVC) P. J. Thomas. There have been few, if any, appointments to high offices in the country that have been as controversial as his. In the end, the Manmohan Singh government paid the price for taking a stand that could not be defended.
Thomas was made CVC in September in the face of protests by the leader of the opposition, Sushma Swaraj, who was a member of the committee that selected the CVC. Important facts were ignored during this process. If anything, the law officers of the Union displayed great zeal in defending him in the proceedings in the apex court. Their line of defence was, to put it mildly, quite brazen.
The apex court noted: “It is surprising that there were notings by the department of personnel and training between 2000 and 2004 and all observed that penalty proceedings should be instituted against Thomas. Such notings were not considered in the case of Thomas, who was given the CVC’s clearance on 6 September, 2008.” Unsurprisingly, the court declared the recommendation of the appointment panel, which is led by the Prime Minister, as non est in law or non-existent in law.
Matters began to go wrong almost from the word go. The two “official” members, the Prime Minister and the home minister, chose to ignore the protests of the leader of the opposition. Had the government not chosen Thomas, the problem would not have emerged in the first place. A combination of arrogance and brittleness prevented it from taking a wiser course of action.
Even after it became clear that the appointment was untenable, matters could have been rectified. A simple admission of error would have been graceful and would have put the opposition on a back foot. For no opposition, unless it is only obstructionist, can continue to criticize a government once the latter has admitted a mistake. That, however, requires something that the United Progressive Alliance government does not have.
Beyond the present case, what is visible is the inability of the government to effect course correction—be it policy mistakes or those made as one-offs as in the case of the CVC. This is dangerous. For in this case another institution stepped in. The dangers, seen and unseen, lie where there are no countervailing institutional remedies available.
The Thomas case: Was the government caught in a “commitment” trap? Tell us at email@example.com