A national mood of revulsion is building up against corruption. The system has to become more transparent so that the corrupt can be exposed. Fear of the law has to be drilled into their minds. For this, the integrity and competence of law enforcement agencies has to be maintained. The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), vigilance agencies within the government, the CBI and revenue investigators must be upright and non-partisan. It is the primacy of such institutional integrity that the Supreme Court (SC) has upheld by quashing the appointment of an incumbent CVC.
The SC has merely stated the obvious. The decision to appoint a CVC must enhance institutional integrity, not render it suspect. All relevant materials in relation to the integrity of candidates should be before the high-powered committee (HPC). The HPC cannot have a pre-determined mindset on appointing a particular person irrespective of his integrity. Every decision, including the decision to dissent, must be informed by reasons that are cogent and relevant. To any student of administrative law, there is nothing new about these safeguards. They reiterate obvious principles of fairness, relevance and rationality. Judicial review is confined to the decision-making process. It is not intended to be a substitute for a merit review.
What the government did was exactly opposite to these well-established principles. It approached the HPC at the eleventh hour with three names. Record of service, particularly relating to the candidates' integrity quotient, was not even considered relevant. That P J Thomas was accused No. 8 in a pending chargesheet was concealed. When a vigilant leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha pointed this out, she was reduced to a dissenting minority. Her plea to the prime minister to adjourn the HPC meeting for a day to enable him to verify this fact went unheeded. She pleaded with him and the home minister that, of the three names prepared by the government, the one with a pending corruption case be left out and any of the other two appointed.
Government leaders insisted on their right to appoint the stigmatised candidate on the strength of their majority. But majority does not confer moral authority. The selected candidate lacked legitimacy. All earlier allegations of corruption against the government did not personally implicate the prime minister.He was merely accused of inaction. But here was a dubious appointment for which he was personally liable. The Teflon coating disappeared instantly. He was now open to questioning.
There is legitimate concern about corruption in the country. Politics continues to be funded by illegitimate money. The government has been soft in its approach to unearthing black money stashed in tax havens. If the Quattrocchi case was given a state-supported burial, in the tainted ministers case UPA-I used the power of coalition politics to dilute the taint.2G spectrum allocation demonstrated an alliance partner's power and the weakness of the coalition government's leader. Institutions created to investigate and prosecute the corrupt were subverted to help the corrupt in all these cases.
The CBI has been the worst affected. It was misused against political opponents and effectively used to cover up the crimes of the UPA's friends. The key watchdog against corruption in the government, the CVC, plays a dominant role in appointing senior CBI officers and keeps vigil over the CBI. It was important for the government to capture this key position. A vulnerable officer needing support to avoid his own problems best suited this government.Thomas's appointment was not an act of oversight. The pendency of the corruption case against him became an asset for Thomas to procure this appointment: his vulnerability added to his qualification.
The SC judgment was not unexpected. It has stated and applied the obvious principles of administrative law to this case. The echo of this judgment will resound for all. It has succeeded in bringing to centrestage the key issue of corruption. India will no longer tolerate or accept the corrupt. Public opinion, media, judiciary, Parliament - all now have corruption as the principal agenda. The judgment has restored the CVC's independence and dignity. Regrettably, the same has not yet been done for the CBI. Nevertheless, the CBI is under increased vigil. Its accountability will now increase.
Politically, the judgment has further demoralised the beleaguered government. It has smashed its arrogance of power. Majority does not necessarily confer legality. For UPA-II, where things can go wrong, they shall go wrong. A curious trend is now visible even in the Congress. A section of the leadership is now grumbling: Why must the party pay a political price for governance defaults? One can see tensions writ large between some senior ministers as also between the party and the PMO.
When P V Narasimha Rao was removed from the party presidency after losing the 1996 elections, his finance minister, Manmohan Singh, did not defend him. "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion", Singh publicly commented. Under UPA-I, seven tainted ministers were inducted into the government. He defended this, saying there was a presumption of innocence till guilt is proved. Caesar's wife did not play on his conscience at the time. Today, the prime minister has to ask himself: Who is accountable for trying to taint the institution of the CVC? An honest answer can help correct the wrong. A not-so-honest answer may further dilute the Teflon coating of Caesar's wife. Caesar's wife may not know where to hide.
The writer is Sh. Arun Jaittely, BJP MP and leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha .