All we need is a few men (and women) of steel, who can say no to govt
Prasanna Mohanty | March 4, 2011
P J Thomas has been forced to quit – by the supreme court, not the government. Once the UPA government decided to make him the central vigilance commissioner, it could do nothing to dislodge him even as it faced embarrassment and criticism.
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Yes, it’s a new low for prime minister Manmohan Singh. People are outraged, and that’s understandable. But if there is any silver lining to the Thomas saga, it is this: he has unwittingly set a precedent that the officials heading our key institutions can do well to remember. He has shown them that you can say no to the government, come what may. Of course, we all wish his ‘no’ was for some cause other than selfish, but ‘no’ it was. Only if our key corruption watchdogs develop the spine, they cannot be removed – not by the government at least, and wage their battles to clean up what is euphemistically called the system. For they have been assured a fixed tenure and a tough process for their removal. They need not take orders from political masters (unless, of course, they are looking for post-retirement benefits).
Taking this lesson is the only way to make good use of the otherwise sorry saga of that bureaucrat.
Remember how a “lapdog” T N Seshan became the “bulldog” of democracy overnight in the 1990s? Single-handedly, without any additional power, he transformed a docile constitutional body, the election commission of India, into a powerful institution that the politicians came to dread. So much so that all the political parties conspired to convert a one-member CEC into a three-member body in 1993. That didn’t have the slightest impact on Seshan, who retired in 1996. Such was his impact that his legacy endures till today. The CEC remains one of the most respected institutions in the country. Those who saw the dramatic transformation marveled at the powers that had always been vested in the CEC but had been largely wasted.
N Vittal did the same to the CVC. When he assumed charge in 1998 (retiring in 2002), the CVC wasn’t even a statutory body. Few, in fact, knew what it was or that it was there. He created a website for his organization and put out the names of mighty IAS and IPS officers on his corruption watchlist because the government deliberately sat on his request for prosecution. It sent a shiver down the spine of the infamous iron-frame of the bureaucracy. When a politician complained against the then minister and feared criminal lawyer Ram Jethmalani, he sent it to the then CBI director R K Raghavan and got it investigated.
Before Raghavan, Trinath Mishra was the acting director of CBI. In November 1998, he had the residence of the mighty Dhirubhai Ambani raided to inquire into the leakage of sensitive official documents. Mishra did not feel the need to check with prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee or home minister L K Advani because, as he told some people later, it is not the CBI director’s job to seek political sanction for his every move. Of course, within weeks of this daredevilry, Mishra was shunted out. Mishra was just an “acting” director and at that time he did not even enjoy the safety of a fixed tenure. That came about with the CVC Act of 2003.
Contrast that with what has happened with the CBI in the telecom scam. The agency sat on the case for two years though it had ample evidence of wrongdoing. When the supreme court moved in and directed action, it arrested a former minister and his associates and a businessman. It has questioned top corporate houses and is moving at a blinding speed. The CBI could move so fast only because, as former minister Arun Shourie says, it had the facts all this while but was waiting for political signals. Imagine what a Trinath Mishra could have done in this case!
A clutch of important posts, all dealing with corruption, are similarly politician-proof. The directors of CBI and enforcement directorate, cabinet secretary, home secretary, defence secretary and foreign secretary are all tenure-fixed posts. Once appointed they cannot be removed for two years. Similarly the chief election commissioner and election commissioners have a six-year tenure (unless they attain age of superannuation before). The heads of TRAI, SEBI, IRDA, RBI have five years.
In our fight against corruption, it would do us all good if we looked at what is there rather than what should be. We have some of the top jobs in this country protected from politicians. Now we need just a few officers with spines of steel to do their jobs the way they are supposed to instead of hankering for the next job. If at all we need changes in our laws to fight corruption, let us begin by making our top officers ineligible for a post-retirement job for a specified number of years. In this age of increasing life-expectancy we cannot ask a 60-year-old to vegetate so they must be paid handsome compensation for denied opportunities.
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