|Monday, 07 February 2011 00:00|
Deeper and deeper. That’s the depth of the hole the government is digging for itself in the CVC PJ Thomas case before the Supreme Court. If it wasn’t bad enough that the Attorney General told the Court integrity couldn’t be a criterion for the CVC’s appointment, he followed this up by saying only the government had the right to look into the CVC’s qualifications, later he said the selection panel that approved his appointment (comprising Prime Minister Singh, home minister Chidambaram and Opposition leader Swaraj) wasn’t aware of the palmolein case against the CVC. The latest in this series of gaffes is the argument that the mere filing of a chargesheet against him by the Kerala government did not amount to a stigma on Thomas! (Never mind that charge-sheeted officials don’t get promoted until they’re proved innocent.)
In actual fact, the government got it right when it made light of the palmolein case, it’s just that it never managed to convey this. Where the government got it wrong, of course, was that Thomas should never have been appointed, but for a very different reason.
Indeed, while BJP leader Sushma Swaraj opposed Thomas’s appointment as the CVC, it does appear she did so for the wrong reasons. Swaraj opposed Thomas as she said there was a demand to prosecute him in a palmolein import decision he took when he was in Kerala in the late 1990s, a decision that is supposed to have caused a loss of Rs 2.3 crore to the Kerala government. Assuming the central government affidavit in the Thomas case is right on facts, it does appear Thomas got caught up in local Kerala politics on the case. On December 31, 1999, the state government asked that Thomas be prosecuted. The matter went back and forth for years (the time it took is another scandal), and by January 24, 2005, the state was saying it no longer wanted to prosecute Thomas. After a change in government, on July 25, 2006, the state once again decided it wanted to prosecute him but, and this is critical, the same government also appointed him the state’s chief secretary on September 18, 2007!
Thomas shouldn’t have been appointed CVC since the CVC’s biggest case was always going to be the telecom one—though the CAG report hadn’t come out when the interview was held in September last year, it was obvious where it was going, and the Swan and Unitech equity sales in 2008 made clear how badly the exchequer had been rooked. And Thomas had been telecom secretary under Raja. As telecom secretary, he had moved papers to tell the CAG it had no powers to examine the ministry’s ‘policy decisions’; as telecom secretary, Thomas failed to move to penalise companies and cancel their licences for failing to roll out their networks as part of the licence conditions. If that wasn’t helping Raja, it’s difficult to define what is.
What’s shocking is that the government affidavit in the Thomas case explains this away as “processing of a file in a normal routine manner”. That, by the way, is also the argument of arrested ex-telecom secretary S Behura—that he was merely processing a file based on a decision taken by the ministry before he joined it!
Undoubtedly the government has been economical with the truth when it told the Supreme Court that the Prime Minister and the home minister didn’t know about the palmolein case since this was not put in the docket for the selection committee meeting—after Swaraj threatened to file an affidavit, home minister P Chidambaram clarified that the matter was discussed at the meeting (difficult to believe Attorney General GE Vahanvati didn’t know this when he briefed the Court?). Swaraj says she was told at the meeting that Thomas had been exonerated in the matter—for the record, the government affidavit denies this was true, a point also reiterated by Chidambaram later.
Even more worrying, and this is the burden of this column, is the entire selection process, and not just of Thomas as the CVC since the cavalier manner applies to all senior postings. Vahanvati told the Court that only the CVs of all 3 candidates were given to the committee comprising the PM, Chidambaram and Swaraj. Only the CVs? That’s right, look at the CVs and you’ll see there’s nothing in them about how well the candidates did in their jobs, or how badly they did, about whether they merely processed “file(s) in a normal routine manner” at the bidding of their bosses or whether they made even an iota of a difference in the charges they held. The CV just lists their educational qualifications, training stints and postings.
None of this can explain why Thomas was selected over the others on the panel—Bijoy Chatterjee and Subbaroyan Krishnan. Chatterjee and Thomas are both from the 1973 batch, both got a first division in graduation and post-graduation in physics; Thomas followed this with another Masters, in economics, while Chatterjee did an MSc; Chatterjee’s first stint at the Centre was in 1978 while Thomas’s first one was in 2009—to that extent, Chatterjee’s CV is more impressive with stints in heavy industries, commerce, finance, petrochemicals and even the Cabinet secretariat while at the Centre; both trained abroad for a year; both have done various short-term courses from 1 week to 8 weeks (Thomas did one in “MS Office 97 and Internet Applications” for a week with the NIC while Chatterjee did one in “Science & Technology” for a week with CMC); neither has any award or publication.
What is one to make of this since there’s nothing to tell us how any of the candidates distinguished themselves, unless you assume from the affidavit that processing a file “in a normal routine manner” is a virtue!
Since it was Thomas who got selected and not Chatterjee, presumably this means Chatterjee didn’t do as much outstanding work as Thomas did—there’s nothing, however, on the record to show this. So how did the committee come to a decision? And, as has just been pointed out, Thomas’s acts of omission and commission as telecom secretary were clearly not put on the record.
It’s not clear if this is standard procedure for other appointments, such as for jobs as secretary, but if so it is truly frightening since it suggests that decisions are taken before and the formal selection process is a mere formality. It would be interesting, in the context of Thomas, to know how the 3 candidates were shortlisted—was it tenure of service, was it academic qualifications, was it ability to do work “in a normal routine manner” or was it a more honest toss of a coin—assuming, by and large, that tossing of a coin can’t be rigged!
Perhaps it’s time to make public under the Right to Information all records of the selection process, and not just for Thomas but for all appointments from the rank of joint secretary and above.