Last week, the central government announced the appointment of the new chief vigilance commissioner (CVC) and the chief information commissioner (CIC). The high-powered selection committees headed by the Prime Minister chose Sanjay Kothari, Secretary to the President, as the new CVC and Bimal Julka as the next CIC. Julka is serving as an Information Commissioner and his elevation as CIC is routine, but the selection and appointment of the CVC has stirred a hornet’s nest.
Congress leader Adhir Ranjan, the opposition member in the committees, strongly objected to the appointments. He said that the papers provided by the PMO disclose glaring and fatal infirmities with the (search) committee itself. He went on to elaborate that the entire process was questionable because one of the search committee members—Finance Secretary Rajiv Kumar—himself turned out to be an applicant for the CVC, and was actually shortlisted.
Ranjan’s ire was more against the procedure followed in the appointment of the CVC, than against the person appointed: “The Prime Minister is under constitutional obligation to protect the integrity of governmental processes. What is being done is that the vigilance watchdog is being turned into a protective shield for the government. We saw the conduct of the CVC in Modi’s first term; the Prime Minister has demolished the institutional framework that is meant to fight corruption.”
This raises two pertinent and critical issues. One, the institutional integrity of the Central Vigilance Commission, and second, as to how former CVC KV Chowdary had severely damaged the credibility and reputation of the organisation as well as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
The then vigilance chief had brazenly lobbied for Additional Director Rakesh Asthana in his confrontation with Director Alok Verma on corruption charges, creating an unseemly controversy. In fact, Chowdary, belonging to the Indian Revenue Service, has had a controversial career.
Former CBI director Ranjit Sinha had also investigated Chowdary’s role in a high-profile investment fraud case, popularly known as the Stock-Guru scheme. Chowdary’s appointment as CVC in 2015 was challenged in the Supreme Court in a PIL and his role in these cases and others was raised. But a bench led by Justice Arun Mishra dismissed the case in July 2018.
Even before Chowdary was appointed as the CVC, several representations were made to the Prime Minister and other members of the selection committee. This was done because, apparently, word had got out that the government had made up its mind to appoint Chowdary as the CVC. The representations stated specific reasons as to why he was not suitable for heading an important anti-corruption institution. However, despite all this, the government went ahead in appointing Chowdary and the Supreme Court dismissed the challenge. It is ironical to note that in 2011, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Chief Justice SH Kapadia and Justices KS Radhakrishnan and Swatanter Kumar, had struck down the appointment of PJ Thomas as CVC because of the Kerala palmolein import case being heard in a special court in which he was an accused.
Institutional integrity was held as the primary reason for setting aside the appointment though Thomas’s personal integrity was not commented upon. More significantly, soon after demitting office as CVC, Chowdary joined the board of Reliance Industries as an independent director.
The CVC is India’s top anti-corruption watchdog. The Commission is considered the apex integrity institution of the country. Apart from overseeing the vigilance administration, it has also been tasked with superintendence over the CBI in corruption cases and is also the designated agency for the protection of whistleblowers and examination of their complaints. It acts as a watchdog over the central government and its instrumentalities.
The Supreme Court in the landmark judgment in the Vineet Narain case (1997) had directed the following: “The Central Vigilance Commission shall be given statutory status. Selection for the post of Central Vigilance Commissioner shall be made by a Committee comprising the Prime Minister, Home Minister and the Leader of the Opposition from a panel of outstanding civil servants and others with impeccable integrity to be furnished by the Cabinet Secretary. The appointment shall be made by the President on the basis of the recommendations made by the Committee. This shall be done immediately.” Pursuant to the said judgment, Parliament passed the Central Vigilance Commission Act, 2003, giving statutory status to the Commission. It had incorporated the order of the Court for the selection and appointment of the CVC. It is imperative therefore that the process and procedures are followed meticulously. This does not appear to have been done in the case of Kothari, hence the controversy.
Similarly, another anti-corruption watchdog, the Lokpal, has also been devalued. Touted as “the supreme watchdog of India’s governance and integrity”, the objective of the Lokpal Act that received presidential assent on January 1, 2014, is to provide for the establishment of a body for the Union to inquire into allegations of corruption against high public functionaries. Soon after the NDA government took over in May 2014, Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions Jitendra Singh stated in the Lok Sabha: “With the recent amendments carried out in the CVC Act, 2003, through the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013, and the powers and functions already available with the Commission, the CVC is in a position to function in an independent and assertive manner for tackling corruption cases.”
After prolonged procrastination, on March 23, 2019, the NDA government appointed Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose as chairperson, Lokpal. Other judicial members of the Lokpal are Justices Dilip B Bhosale, Pradip Kumar Mohanty, Abhilasha Kumari and Ajay Kumar Tripathi. Non-judicial members are former IAS officers Dinesh Kumar Jain and Indrajeet Prasad Gautam, former IPS officer Archana Ramasundaram and former IRS officer Mahender Singh. Not only the method and timing of the appointment of Lokpal, its composition itself had become a subject of controversy because there were charges against the chairman and some members too.
Despite the passage of one year, there is no news about this “supreme watchdog” functioning. No “public functionary” has been arraigned before it so far. Even the humungous corruption charges in the Rafale deal never went to the Lokpal. They were dealt with by the Supreme Court mostly through “sealed covers”.
On November 14, 2019, the Court dismissed all petitions seeking review of its verdict delivered on December 14, 2018, on the controversy and upheld the previous judgment stating that no irregularities or corruption had been found in the deal. Nobody is questioning Kothari’s integrity and, being former Secretary, Department of Personnel & Training, he has all the qualifications to be CVC. But he is inheriting an unsavoury institutional legacy. He needs to work hard and relentlessly, to get rid of this stigma as quickly as possible. And that will be his litmus test!
—The writer is a former Army & IAS officer