Independence, probity intrinsic to public office

Indian Parliament Building Delhi India
Image via Wikipedia


A politician with chargesheets pending against him in a corruption case, yet getting a plum ministerial post does not surprise many in this country when corruption has spread its tentacles far and wide, restricting the growth potential of the country. But when it came to P J Thomas presiding over the office of Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) — the statutory corruption watchdog given teeth by Supreme Court in its 1997 Vineet Narain judgment — there was a din on the ground that there was a chargesheet pending against him in the Kerala palmolein import scam.

Why this double standard in measuring the suitability of a person to an important post, be it the Council of Ministers or CVC? Did not Lalu Prasad remain railway minister at the Centre even when the fodder scam trial was going on against him? In the case of Thomas, the incongruity of the person’s suitability, not eligibility, to become the chief vigilance commissioner was the question, given the duty cast on the body by SC to protect an endangered quality — maintaining probity in public life.

Let us take a look at what SC expected of CVC in its judgment while entrusting it the important role of overseeing CBI’s anti-corruption work:

CVC shall be given statutory status and will be responsible for the efficient functioning of CBI
CBI shall report to CVC about cases taken up by it for investigation, cases in which chargesheets are filed and their progress

Recommendations for appointment of CBI director shall be made by a selection committee headed by the CVC with home secretary and secretary (personnel) as members. The final selection shall be made by Appointments Committee of Cabinet from the panel recommended by the selection committee. These three recommendations will tell the common man, witnessing a wide range of investigations being undertaken by CBI at a time when scams haunt the political and bureaucratic spectrum, the importance of a clean CVC.

Thomas is clean and has impeccable integrity. No one can probably question his eligibility to head the CVC. But, is he suitable? Like any honest person, Thomas is an angry man. And he is getting angrier with every question aimed at his suitability, which he mistakes it as being aimed at his eligibility for the post of CVC.

But how can a person, facing a chargesheet in a corruption case, even if the charge is criminal conspiracy, oversee the functions of CBI in corruption cases? He may have recused himself from overseeing investigations into the brazen 2G spectrum scam, but can he do it in every corruption case? After all, the chargesheet against Thomas is there since 2000 and is not going to vanish in a hurry, given the slow process of trial courts.

And, can Thomas head the selection panel to choose the director of CBI or empanel IPS officers who, like him, have impeccable integrity but have a chargesheet pending? What will he ask the concerned department about non-grant of sanction for prosecution in corruption cases, as many as 300-odd are pending? What if they reply that they are going to grant sanction against him for prosecution in the palmolein import scam? In the Vineet Narain verdict, SC had said, “Holders of public office are entrusted with certain powers to be exercised in public interest alone and, therefore, the office is held by them in trust for the people.”

So, whatever Thomas may say explaining his own integrity and honesty by producing a dozen certificates, the core question will remain: Is he suitable to head CVC when a chargesheet, howsoever politically motivated it might be, is pending against him?


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