Honesty can’t be faked

Joginder Singh
Former Dirtector – CBI

The Government has grievously erred in the appointment of PJ Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner. It must make amends without delay The Supreme Court of India, while hearing two separate though connected cases of public interest litigation, has raised a pertinent question by asking as to how the newly-appointed Central Vigilance Commissioner could fulfill his responsibilities since he is still an accused in a criminal case relating to irregularities in the import of palm oil. The Supreme Court has pointed out that the Central Vigilance Commissioner is supposed to order investigations into complaints of corruption received by the Commission he heads, the appellate anti-corruption body which supervises the functioning of the Central Bureau of Investigation. The accused in such complaints could well say: “You cannot deal with these as you are an accused in a criminal case yourself.”

According to the two PILs, the Union Government had ignored the Supreme Court’s guidelines for the appointment of the CVC. Under these guidelines, a three-member committee is supposed to select the CVC
from a panel of civil servants with impeccable integrity and outstanding career records. The Supreme Court wanted to know whether this criterion had been followed. It also asked the Government whether the charge sheet against Mr PJ Thomas had been consistently ignored over the last 10 years during which time he was promoted several times — from being Food Secretary in Kerala he became Telecom Secretary and Secretary in the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs before being appointed CVC. The Supreme Court said, “We are not against the person but we are on his office… We want to know if he, being an accused, is able to function at this sensitive post.” The Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau of Kerala had filed the charge sheet in the palm oil import scam as per Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act after securing proper sanction.

The Attorney-General later commented that if the criterion of ‘impeccable integrity’ were to be strictly applied then even the appointments of several judges and others holding constitutional office would be “subject to scrutiny and challenged”. The Attorney-General, perhaps, may not be aware that for every worthwhile appointment, including that of the judges, a vigilance clearance is required. The appointment of Chief Vigilance Officers of Government departments and public sector undertakings is cleared by the CVC after obtaining necessary reports from the CBI and other agencies. In fact, the Chief Justice of India rammed home the point by saying that under service rules, someone with a charge sheet pending against him would
not even be considered for a promotion.

There is more than what meets the eye in all high profile appointments by the Government irrespective of the party in power. Rulers who abide by ethics do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly; those who are unscrupulous constantly seek a way around laws. The top bureaucrats — the Cabinet Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Principal Secretary — are all from Kerala. A phone call or an e-mail from any of them would have fetched them the latest information about the status of the case against Mr Thomas. The officer cannot be faulted for the munificence of the Government, but his colleagues who suppressed facts must share the blame. Fellow bureaucrats have got him a post-retirement job, that too with the status of a Supreme Court judge, that will keep him in comfort at taxpayers’ expense for another five years.

Indeed, the Union and the State Governments run an employment exchange for retired officers who have not only toed the line laid down by their political bosses but also, when asked to bend, have chosen to crawl. There are more than 400 committees and commissions which are practically reserved for retired officers. This is strange as most of the working officers in senior positions do not have even half-an-hour of work. Sometime back I ran into a Secretary to the Government and asked him was work. He said since he did not toe the line of his Minister the post of OSD was created for him. He defined OSD not as Officer on Special Duty but Officer in Search of Duty.

The only condition of post-retirement employment is that the bureaucrat should not only be flexible but also pliable. It is said in jest that civil servants lose a vertebra of their backbone for every one or two years of their service. By the time they retire, barring honourable exceptions, most of them become spineless wonders. They do so in the interest of their survival and occupying good posts till they kick the bucket. Nobody doubts the integrity of the Prime Minister, but he seems to have an incredible amount of faith in a
corrupt bureaucracy which does not place all the facts before him. Why should the Government try to justify the unjustifiable? It has blundered in the appointment of the CVC.

Good governance requires hard work and the courage to take decisions. You do not need Solomon’s wisdom to realize that our actions produce reactions. When the Government has fixed the retirement age for
bureaucrats at 60, why should some be favoured with extensions in service for five years by being appointed to various commissions or constitutional posts? The Government swears by the rule of law and fairplay but more often than not it treats some as more equal than others.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, the law of the land still remains alive and is periodically upheld as above all, no matter how powerful the individuals or institutions concerned may be. The Government must realize that there is no room for legal hair splitting on the pertinent questions raised by the Supreme Court in the case pertaining to the appointment of the CVC in violation of all norms and guidelines. There really should be no need to remind the Prime Minister, whose integrity is unimpeachable and who has a high sense of probity that governance is largely about being honest and speaking the truth, no matter how bitter it may be. Given the fact that the Prime Minister is widely seen as an honest individual, he should take the initiative in rectifying the blunder made by his Government in the appointment of Mr Thomas as the CVC. He is clearly not the right
choice for the job; he should be removed and due diligence must be applied in finding an officer to replace him. There is no shortage of those who fit the bill and have an unblemished record. What Carlyle said for individuals is equally applicable to the Government: Make yourself an honest man, and then you may be sure there is one less rascal in the world.