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BW Businessworld

In The Eye Of The 2G Storm

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With the Supreme Court tightening the screws on the 2G scam, it is going to be difficult for P.J. Thomas to continue as the chief vigilance commissioner (CVC). The apex court has directed the CBI to investigate the manner in which telecom licences and spectrum were granted from 2001 to 2008, and also why the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) did not take action against the licencees who failed to fulfill rollout obligations. Thomas was appointed the CVC this September after spending a year in DoT as telecom secretary.

The apex court on 6 December sent notices to the Centre and Thomas asking them to respond to a petition filed by People's Union for Civil Liberties and former Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh challenging Thomas's appointment as CVC. Thomas is alleged to have been involved in a palmolein import scam in 1992, when he was food secretary in the Kerala government. The case is pending before a lower court in Kerala. Moreover, Thomas was appointed by the government despite a dissent note from Sushma Swaraj, who was a member in the committee — as the leader of the Opposition — that shortlisted his name.

The apex court might put an end to this controversy on 27 January — at the final hearing . If the court pronounces his appointment void, the President of India (Pratibha Patil) can remove him as the CVC. In that case, either R. Sri Kumar or J.M. Garg — the two vigilance commissioners — will be given interim charge. Sources in Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), which is responsible for shortlisting candidates, say no action will be planned until the post of CVC falls vacant. Once the names are shortlisted, they are sent to a three-member committee, including the Prime Minister and home minister, for approval.

A source in the DoPT says Thomas's appointment had strong backing from the Kerala lobby — which holds some of the top administrative posts in the country. Thomas, however, appears confident. "I am happy that I have got a chance to explain myself," he said following the Supreme Court notice. Legal experts say, according to the CVC Act, "CVC…shall be removed from his office only by order of the President." Currently, no such reference has been made by the President.

Meanwhile, a source in the Congress party says that the UPA government will distance itself from any order that a lower court may pass on Thomas. Earlier, Thomas recused himself from monitoring the 2G probe after the Supreme Court questioned his ability to oversee the matter — considering he was the telecom secretary under former telecom minister A. Raja. It is a different matter that he did not sign any licences that are currently under scrutiny.
Thomas took over as the telecom secretary in October 2009. But the 2G spectrum licences were allocated in 2008, when Siddharth Behura was the secretary, DoT. Behura is currently chairman of the C-Dot Alcatel Research Centre, a joint venture between Alcatel-Lucent and the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT). Experts say sooner or later Behura's role in allocating 2G licence would also come under the scrutiny of CBI and the Supreme Court.  

As far as the Opposition parties are concerned, they are not going to stop at Thomas's removal. Sources in the Opposition camp say they are going to stay firm on their demand for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probe at the upcoming Budget session of the Parliament (in February) even if Thomas is ousted. 

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 03-01-2011)