Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Who will guard the guardians?


(First appeared in The Pioneer dated March 08, 2011)

In the disgraceful PJ Thomas episode, what has gone largely unnoticed is the dubious role the Central Vigilance Commission played as an institution in facilitating the elevation of the now displaced IAS officer. This happened before he became the Central Vigilance Commissioner, and much earlier to the Supreme Court’s landmark verdict of March 3 that set aside Mr Thomas’ appointment as non-est – an appointment that never happened. A reading of the judgement – that ranks as among the most significant verdicts of the apex court since Independence – clearly establishes the flip-flops of the Commission on the matter that was used by both the Centre and Mr Thomas to project their righteousness.

On February 18, 2003, the Department of Personnel and Training referred the matter of sanctioning Mr Thomas’ prosecution in the palmolein oil import case to the Central Vigilance Commission. Less than four months later on June 3, 2003, the CVC responded, “Keeping in view the facts and circumstances of the case, the Commission would advise the Department of Personnel and Training to initiate major penalty proceedings against Mr P J Thomas…”

Nothing significant happened for four years after that, except that the governments changed both in Kerala and at New Delhi, and the matter of granting prosecution sanction remained in limbo. The central government remained ambivalent to pleas from the state on the matter. Meanwhile, the issue of empanelment of some officers including Mr Thomas to central services came up for consideration. On May 10, 2007, after persistent prodding by the Kerala government, the central regime wrote to the CVC seeking an opinion whether the pendency of response from the central government on the request can come in the way of the empanelment.

Here, the Commission went beyond its brief to take a U-turn on its earlier stand that he should be proceeded against. As the apex court observed, “Rather than rendering the advice asked for, the CVC vide its letter dated June 25, 2007 informed the Ministry that no case is made out…”

The Commission went a step further and stated that the case against Mr Thomas “may be dropped and the matter be referred once again thereafter to the Commission so that vigilance clearance as sought for now can be recorded”. Two points need to be noted here: One, the CVC went out of its way to suggest dropping of charges, and two, it even offered a way out to the Centre by suggesting that, once the charges were dropped, the government could return to the Commission for vigilance clearance.

The Supreme Court took exception to this change in attitude when it stated, “Neither in the reply nor on the file, any reasons are available as to why the CVC had changed its earlier opinion/stand as conveyed to the Ministry (earlier on June 3).” But that was not the central government’s concern. The problem for it was that, despite the CVC’s convenient shift in position the central government still could not have its way because the Kerala government which had pressed the charges was in no mood to oblige.

But even that did not deter the UPA government. Fortified by the Commission’s “advise”, it empanelled Mr Thomas – by now the state’s Chief Secretary – to the central services. On October 6, 2008 the CVC gave him the vigilance clearance, ignoring not just its earlier stand but also the various observations made by the Department of Personnel and Training along the way. On this the apex court remarked, “From the files we find that there at least six notings of DoPT between June 26, 2000 and November 2, 2004 which has recommended initiation of penalty proceedings against Mr P J Thomas, and yet in the clearance given by CVC… there is no reference to (these) notings.”

The Commission’s remarkable vacillation and doubtful ignorance of the adversial remarks by the DoPT eventually cleared the way for Mr Thomas to enter the central services and later become the Central Vigilance Commissioner. It also led to his disgrace.

If the role of the CVC was questionable, the conduct of the Congress had been no less so. While it is well known that the Congress-led UPA government backed Mr Thomas all along in the Supreme Court battle, the support can be traced back to the early days when the IAS officer was charge-sheeted in the oil import case – a charge-sheet that stands to this day. It was a Congress government in Kerala that wrote to the DoPT in January 2005 saying it did not want sanction to prosecute Thomas. In fact, it sought withdrawal of an earlier request for sanction made by its predecessor, the Left Front government.

Again, in November 2005 the state government took the position that since the charges levelled against Mr Thomas were invalid, the case against him should be withdrawn and the request for sanction to prosecute him need not be pursued. The move would have been a success but for the will of the people of Kerala. In May 2006, the Left Front, which was swept to power replacing the Congress-led alliance, opened the case and asked the central government to proceed with according sanction for prosecution.

Now, New Delhi’s Congress-led government suddenly perked up. It demanded to know the grounds on which the state was seeking to revive the prosecution sanction request. Interestingly, it had sought no such clarification when the Congress government in the state had sought withdrawal of request to sanction the prosecution – a request that had been made by an earlier Left government. Also, the Congress-controlled regime at the centre had not demanded an explanation from the CVC as to why the agency had summarily given a clean chit to Mr Thomas when all it had been asked to do was to offer some technical advice.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wasteful defence, ridiculous deflection


(First appeared in The Pioneer dated March 2, 2011)

It beats reason why the Prime Minister, Mr Manmohan Singh should continue to defend a telecom policy that has reduced his government to shame and ridicule. If the idea is to constantly remind the people that the policy is the creation of the NDA regime, and therefore, the NDA is to blame for all the subsequent ills, it has not worked. The policy was framed in 2001 when market conditions were substantially different from those of today. Corporate houses had then to be cajoled into providing services whose financial viability was yet to be tested. Today, with the market expanding and the demand for Law mobile phone services growing at a blistering pace there is a scramble for securing licences, with operators willing to pay huge sums as fees to get them. Surely, the policy ought to have been tweaked to exploit the situation and gain the maximum revenues for the public exchequer.

That apart, let us understand what the Prime Minister said in Parliament recently. He stated that the implementation of the policy had been faulty. In doing so, he has further implicated himself, because then Mr Singh presided over a government which wrongly executed the telecom policy – even assuming for argument’s sake here that the policy was appropriate for the moment. What did he do about it? He cannot say that he acted immediately after the matter came to light. The Pioneer was the first to report on the shady dealings in December 2008, and it went on unravel layer after layer of the scam in a series of reports thereafter all through 2009 and 2010. That in turn triggered a flurry of activity, with the Comptroller & Auditor General, Central Vigilance Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the courts turning the heat on the government. Mr A Raja, who presided over the scam as Telecom Minister had to depart and was eventually arrested.

But, at least a year before The Pioneer launched its scathing expose the matter had come to Mr Singh’s notice. Besides the official correspondences involving the Telecom Ministry, the Law Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in late 2007, that showed how the then Minister was manipulating the policy to favour a select few, the Prime Minister too had written to Mr Raja asking him to implement the policy in a fair and transparent manner. All of this is in the public domain now, as is the fact that Mr Singh took no action over the defective implementation. For the Prime Minister to now regret that the policy execution was faulty is meaningless, unless he squarely takes the responsibility for that.

Mr Singh also said that the government’s aim was to provide quality service to the largest number of people and not to maximize revenue. Interestingly, this is in keeping with the now discredited Mr Raja’s contention that his decisions had empowered the common man by making 2G services accessible at affordable rates. The argument is supposed to provide legitimacy to the decision of not auctioning the licences but distributing it at discretion. It goes like this: had the government auctioned the licences, the service providers would have had to pay a heavier price for getting them, and thus would have charged the consumer more for the services they would provide. Why has the government then auctioned the 3G spectrum licences? Interestingly, despite having paid market price for 3G spectrum in competitive bidding, the service providers have rolled out the service at rates that are in some cases even lower than those of the 2G service providers.

The absence of bidding leads to – as it did in the 2G issue -- the cartelization of service providers, and that, the Prime Minister will agree, is not in the long-term interests of the consumer. Nor is such a development healthy for the country’s corporate sector, already beset by deep rivalries. In such a situation, the government’s intent also comes into question, because it is seen as favouring a select group of business houses at the cost of others. In the old times of licence-quota-permit system governments used to employ such tactics to extend their patronage to those they favoured and harm the ones they considered as ‘hostile’. Several high profile business clashes that hit the ordinary shareholders besides creating obstacles in the country’s economic growth, had their genesis in this sort of discretionary system.

Let us now return to the telecom policy itself, a policy that the central government has defended not so much because it likes it but because it wants to grill into the opposition that the policy is the NDA’s creation. Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal said in Parliament, with a smirk on the face, that the government had merely implemented the first-come-first-served provision of that policy.

There are two basic differences in the approach of the NDA government and that of the present one on the policy. During the NDA regime, the first-come-first served provision was implemented in letter and in spirit. Secondly, every major decision was vetted and cleared by the Cabinet. But in the UPA’s case, Mr Raja handpicked applicants and helped them jump the queue by various means such as arbitrarily advancing the cut-off date for submitting applications along with the necessary fee, which ran into several crores of rupees. Caught off guard, several legitimate applicants were stranded for time and cash, and thus eliminated. Messrs Singh and Sibal must, therefore, stop indulging in illogical analogies and concentrate on stemming the rot.