Column : Doubting Thomas

Written by Sunil Jain | Updated: Feb 8 2011, 04:56am hrs
Deeper and deeper. Thats the depth of the hole the government is digging for itself in the CVC PJ Thomas case before the Supreme Court. If it wasnt bad enough that the Attorney General told the Court integrity couldnt be a criterion for the CVCs appointment, he followed this up by saying only the government had the right to look into the CVCs qualifications, later he said the selection panel that approved his appointment (comprising Prime Minister Singh, home minister Chidambaram and Opposition leader Swaraj) wasnt 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 dont get promoted until theyre proved innocent.)

In actual fact, the government got it right when it made light of the palmolein case, its 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 Thomass 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 states chief secretary on September 18, 2007!

Thomas shouldnt have been appointed CVC since the CVCs biggest case was always going to be the telecom onethough the CAG report hadnt 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 ministrys 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 wasnt helping Raja, its difficult to define what is.

Whats 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 Behurathat 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 didnt know about the palmolein case since this was not put in the docket for the selection committee meetingafter 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 didnt know this when he briefed the Court). Swaraj says she was told at the meeting that Thomas had been exonerated in the matterfor 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 Thats right, look at the CVs and youll see theres 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 panelBijoy 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; Chatterjees first stint at the Centre was in 1978 while Thomass first one was in 2009to that extent, Chatterjees 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 theres 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 didnt do as much outstanding work as Thomas didtheres nothing, however, on the record to show this. So how did the committee come to a decision And, as has just been pointed out, Thomass acts of omission and commission as telecom secretary were clearly not put on the record.

Its 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 shortlistedwas 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 coinassuming, by and large, that tossing of a coin cant be rigged!

Perhaps its 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.