The Failure of Institutional Integrity

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The existence of a criminal case against Mr P.J. Thomas, howsoever old, fallacious and motivated, should have been pointed out in writing to the high-powered committee that selected the Central Vigilance Commissioner.

THE Prime Minister and hence the government has accepted responsibility for the wrongful appointment of Mr P.J. Thomas as the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC). But that still does not answer why important functionaries did not record the impropriety of selecting him as CVC. Had they done so, the Thomas imbroglio would never have occurred. Suppression of adverse facts would have been unheard of in earlier times.

Institutional integrity requires self policing. There is an informal as well as a formal code of conduct and placing trustworthy and ethical individuals in important positions is the first adage of the informal code of conduct. Documentation is a process and that constitutes the formal code of conduct. Both seem to have been thrown to the winds in the Thomas case.

Consider basic facts about how the jobs in the Central Government are understood. (State Governments follow completely different norms). At the Centre, appointments to top constitutional and statutory posts have invariably been decided at the top, always orally. The decision would be taken at a meeting where the Cabinet Secretary and the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister would either advice the PM or agree to what he desires to have done. No records are maintained but once the decision is taken, the Secretary in the Department of Personnel is asked to “move the file” adding a suitable panel of names, as part of the process.

At that stage, the Department of Personnel would bring every single adverse fact which would be available to the entire hierarchy of officers in charge of vigilance to the notice of the Secretary, in writing. So if this was not done, someone gave explicit orders not to bring anything on record. Thereby the formal code of conduct which rests on documentation was forsaken.

But even before the Department of Personnel got into its act, the Principal Secretary to the PM and the Cabinet Secretary who have the lineage of every officer on their fingertips would have pointed out the unsuitability of an officer being appointed to a sensitive post. If that were not done it was a neglect of responsibility. In the past, even a whiff of impropriety, just an unsavoury newspaper report unverified and never acted upon was considered sufficient reason to recommend denial of a sensitive posting. Whatever the degree of pressure exercised and whether it emanated from members of the first family, political heavyweights or past benefactors who had to be recompensed, avoiding embarrassment to the government was sacrosanct.

At least on this one score, the informal code of conduct preserved institutional integrity by advising against the selection of an officer against whom an enquiry was pending. And the advice was always accepted no matter which government happened to be in power.

Somewhere during the short-term Prime Ministerships of V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda and Gujral — each stint lasted around a year or less — performance benchmarks began to be watered down — a trend that continued right up to 2004. Incompetence became acceptable. A penchant for flamboyant lifestyles and hobnobbing with persons having direct business interests, once unacceptable, became commonplace. Even so, the need for vigilance clearance was never lost sight of while appointing individuals to take charge of sensitive assignments. And if there was a problem, the name was simply dropped.

Post-2004 loyalty became a new benchmark for apportioning rewards. But despite this predilection, in the case of sensitive jobs the need for having a record free from any vigilance angle was still not compromised with. In the process, some upright officers got overlooked for important assignments because complaints remained under investigation. But the opposite never happened. A vigilance case flagged the end of the road.

But a little later a new phenomenon emerged — never witnessed in the annals of the civil service at the Centre. Important ministers and coalition partners became increasingly demanding. Unfamiliar with too many people in the Central Government, they pressed to induct those whom they had come to know or those whose work they had liked at an earlier juncture. Increasingly, Indira Gandhi’s strict policy of never posting secretaries who were known to ministers together was thrown to the winds. Instead the selection of secretaries, heads of constitutional authorities and of regulators was seen as largesse to be doled out by individual ministers. Officers responsible for oversight caved in and thereby sent a clear signal to those within the system not to act difficult.

Mr Thomas was empanelled as Secretary to the Central Government, despite a pending criminal case. From being made Parliamentary Affairs Secretary, he was further rewarded by being made Secretary in the Ministry of Telecommunications — a huge promotion. The institutional integrity of following due process collapsed. With that demands for the issue of partisan orders could no longer be resisted.

This new tendency to acquiesce in the proclivities of selected ministers punctured a time-honoured practice – one that was ironically intended to save the government from embarrassment. And despite the system possessing formidable capacity to give sound advice, it was prevented from doing so. The former CVC’s advise to hold the departmental enquiry against Mr Thomas was also ignored. (As to why the CVC suffered from amnesia at a later date is hard to understand.).The existence of a criminal case against Mr Thomas, howsoever old, fallacious and motivated, needed to have been pointed out in writing but it was deliberately not done.

Written clearances are compulsory and have to be obtained from the CVC and the Department of Personnel where the entire dossier of an officer is scrutinised to worm out anything that might cause embarrassment at a future date. No officer would have taken the risk of shilly-shallying from placing integrity-related information on record; because his own neck would be on the chopping block if the matter blew up subsequently.

Given all this, what is intriguing about the Thomas case is that the baggage he carried was deliberately concealed. What are the factors that tied the hands and sealed the lips of those charged with the responsibility of pointing out these things? Was the opportunity to obtain the mandatory clearances deliberately withheld? Why did the Secretary Personnel fail to record what he clearly knew or was he prevented from pointing it out? If so, what threat or inducement was used? Either the file containing the integrity-related information was never sought from the division dealing with vigilance clearances or an adverse note which was submitted was deliberately concealed.

All this needs to be made public because only then would officers understand that it does not pay to suppress inconvenient facts. When the political executive was not prepared to listen, had the senior-most functionaries pointed the facts out in writing, no one could have or would have overruled them. All that might have happened would have been a loss of power and prestige attached to their jobs. But at least the institutional integrity which the Supreme Court referred to would have remained intact instead of being sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

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