Exit of Kerala vigilance chief

P. Sreekumaran

Whatever spin the government may put on, the conclusion inescapable is that the unceremonious exit of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau director Jacob Thomas constitutes a major setback to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) Government’s battle against corruption and nepotism.
It may be mentioned that the battle against corruption was the top priority item on the LDF’s manifesto. And the exit of Jacob Thomas, a bold officer known for his commitment to the job on hand, from the post would weaken the Government’s determination to root out corruption. That is the prevalent perception about the entire episode.
Whatever the drawbacks of Thomas, he had shown, during his 10-month-old tenure, what a strong and uncompromising vigilance director can do. Thomas had shades of former chief election commissioner T N Seshan who had scared the daylights out of politicians during his tenure as CEC. The no-nonsense officer that he is, Thomas had managed to strike terror in the hearts of the venal and the corrupt. His critics and detractors – and their number is legion -  may have a point that he often overstepped his limits; that he used powers which he was not supposed to do; and he was guilty of overzealousness. But he had certainly succeeded in robbing the corrupt – politicians and bureaucrats alike – of their peace of mind.
No wonder, his exit is being celebrated by the corrupt and the venal. They are literally heaving a big sigh of relief. And the manner in which Thomas has been eased out has dented the credibility of a government wedded to the battle against corruption.
The ostensible reason for his exit is the stringent criticism from the High Court for “overstepping the constitutional bounds to establish a vigilance raj in Kerala”.
The court also took strong exception to ‘wrongful and irresponsible telecast of the news that “the court had directed the government to change the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB) director Jacob Thomas.” A single judge of the court said that “one of the TV channels and one of the advocates who participated in a channel discussion had crossed all limits of propriety, gentility and professional etiquette and even made an indirect bargain for judgment to be pronounced by the court” in a revision petition that was pending.
The court noted that when a “matter was being heard as regards the powers of the VACB, even to enquire into the wisdom of the legislature, I asked the learned Public prosecutor why necessary action was not taken by the government on the issue to correct and control the VACB in spite of so many instances of excess pointed out by the court. “This was probably misinterpreted dishonestly or otherwise by some TV channels that the court had directed the government to change the Vigilance director,” the court said..
  In the face of such relentless criticism from the High Court, it became difficult for the Government to defend Thomas any more. Hence his resignation.
   Detractors of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan say he could not have remained indifferent to the judge’s scathing remarks against Vigilance functioning. They say the CM was in no position to ignore the criticism as it is the same judge who is hearing the SNC Lavalin petition against Pinarayi.
A word about the opposition’s stance is in order. The Opposition had been vociferously demanding, the ouster of Jacob Thomas. But when he was at long last shown the door, it is criticizing the Government for doing so! This is double standards of the highest order. The stance of the Congress has made the party a laughing stock. While leader of the Opposition says the decision to sack Thomas was mysterious, KPCC president M M Hassan has welcomed the government’s decision to replace him! No wonder, the dual stand has exposed the Congress to the charge of playing group politics even in such important matters. Hassan belongs to the A group led by Oommen Chandy while Ramesh Chennithala heads the rival I group.
Reports also have it that pressure from within the CPI(M) itself forced the Government’s hand in the matter. A section of the CPI(M) was unhappy with Thomas for his handling of the EP Jayarajan issue , who had to resign as industries minister on the charge of nepotism. The filing of an FIR against another CPI(M) leader also incurred the CP{I(M)’s displeasure sealing Thomas’s fate.
For record’s sake, Thomas has gone on one–month’s leave. But it is clear that there would be no comeback for him. Thomas himself admitted as much in his interaction with the reporters. State Police DGP Loknath Behra has been given temporary charge of the Vigilance chief.
Much will depend on the choice of a successor to Thomas. And it won’t be easy to find one who can deliver the LDF’s promise to root out corruption. In view of the fate that has befallen Thomas. His successor would be doubly careful not to tread on too many sensitive corns while battling corruption. And such a ‘safe’ approach would inflict immense damage to the LDF’s credibility and commitment to eradicate corruption. No doubt, difficult days are ahead for the Pinarayi government. (IPA)

Saturday, 8 April, 2017