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Government in spot as apex court strikes down CVC appointment

Thursday March 03, 2011 10:08:40 PM, IANS

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Supreme Court strikes down appointment of CVC P.J. Thomas

The Supreme Court Thursday struck down the appointment of P.J. Thomas as central vigilance commissioner (CVC) for his alleged involvement in a corruption case, six months after he was appointed to the post. The court said the appointment made by the high-powered committee   »

New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday struck down the appointment of P.J. Thomas as head of India's top anti-corruption watchdog, pushing the government deeper into crisis with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's judgement being questioned by a belligerent opposition that also sought greater accountability from him.

Six months after the Kerala bureaucrat was named Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), the Supreme Court said the appointment by a three-person panel, consisting of the prime minister, Home Minister P. Chidambaram and opposition leader Sushma Swaraj, was not in consonance with law.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sushma Swaraj had placed her opposition to his appointment on record at a Sep 3, 2010 meeting and her party, as well as the rest of the opposition, had made it a big issue, questioning the government's integrity and decision making process. The opposition called for Chidambaram's resignation, but stopped short of asking Manmohan Singh to quit.

As the ruling Congress party went into a huddle over its response, an embattled Manmohan Singh only said: "I respect the court judgment and I will speak in the house."

According to officials, the prime minister has ruled out an appeal against the judgment, which would have required a larger bench to look into the issue.

With elections to four states and a union territory - billed as the biggest national referendum since the 2009 general elections - beginning next month, the timing could not have been worse for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) II government that has been battling a series of corruption scandals.

Though the doors had closed for Thomas, a former chief secretary of Kerala embroiled in a 1992 palm oil corruption case, there was some confusion whether he had immediately quit office.

"He has tendered his resignation and the Supreme Court also held his appointment illegal," Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily told reporters soon after the ruling by a bench headed by Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia.

However, Thomas' lawyer Wills Mathew said: "Thomas has not resigned yet. We have to see the full judgment and study it."

The man himself could not be reached for comment and avoided the trailing media.

In its judgment, in response to a petition by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) challenging Thomas' appointment, the apex court said institutional integrity and functioning were more important than personal integrity though both were related.

It said it was incumbent upon the high-powered committee to keep in mind institutional integrity while making the recommendation of the CVC and it should be according to the law.

Thomas, a 1973 batch Indian Administrative Service officer, was Kerala's civil supplies secretary in 1992 when the alleged scam took place. A case was registered in 1999, accusing Thomas and others of criminal conspiracy and causing a loss of Rs.2.32 crore to the exchequer. They were accused of importing 15,000 tonnes of palm oil from Malaysia at an inflated price.

The ruling - the latest blow to the government battling "scams" like the allocation of 2G spectrum and irregularities in the Commonwealth Games - provided the opposition just the ammunition it was looking for.

Getting into election mode and upbeat after its relentless demand for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) into 2G spectrum allocation paid dividends, there was a chorus for Chidambaram's resignation.

"As home minister, his duty was to present the right facts but they concealed facts on the allegations against Thomas," BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi said outside parliament, where the budget session is in progress.

"Even when (Sushma Swaraj) brought it to their notice that Thomas' name was involved in a corruption case, they ignored it," he said.

His colleague Arun Jaitley said the prime minister should answer whether he was misled (by his officials) or chose to mislead by ignoring the charges against Thomas.

Toeing the same line, Janata Dal-United leader Sharad Yadav said: "The home minister should take moral responsibility and resign."

Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Sitaram Yechury added that the prime minister must explain the government's stance in parliament.

Kerala Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, also of the CPI-M, echoed the demand for Chidambaram's resignation and disclosed that he had been forced to appoint Thomas as chief secretary because of the powerful IAS lobby.

Responding to a question why he appointed Thomas to the post, the chief minister said: "I did it because when the appointment time of the new chief secretary came, a group of 27 IAS officers met me and requested that he should not be overlooked. Hence I gave in... Don't you know these IAS people are very big people?"

Government insiders, who said the verdict was expected, went into a huddle to discuss ways of minimizing the impact.

"The prime minister and the government has to put up a defence. Otherwise, it will affect the prospects of the UPA II in the coming assembly polls," a Congress leader told IANS on the condition of anonymity.





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