(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.