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07 Jul 2020, Edition - 1820, Tuesday

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Why have politicians and bureaucrats ganged up against Kerala’s vigilance department chief?

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An officer doing his job is under immense pressure to step down despite strong backing by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Earlier this month, Jacob Thomas, the head of the Kerala’s Vigilance Department, sent a letter to the state’s chief secretary asking to be relieved of his responsibilities at the anti-corruption watchdog.

Thomas is a Kerala-cadre Indian Police Service officer who has a reputation for being honest. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan handpicked him to head the Vigilance Department shortly after the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front government was voted to power in Kerala in May.

Both the chief minister and Thomas are now under immense pressure from politicians and bureaucrats who are unhappy with the vigilance officer’s efforts to crack down on corruption in the state.

On October 22, Thomas filed a complaint with the Director General of Police (law and order) that his phone calls were being tapped and his emails were being snooped upon. The Chief Minister had ordered a probe into the matter.

Thomas told Scroll.in that the mounting pressure to see him out of the department was one of the reasons why he decided enough is enough. “Certainly among all the other pressures, the lobbying to send me out of vigilance was immense,” he said. “But then I don’t like to call it hounding because any officer who does his job and who is ready to fight corruption across India faces the same pressure that I am facing. But then I have a job to do.”

However, for Vijayan, it is crucial that Thomas continues in office. The vigilance officer is critical to the chief minister’s efforts to show voters that his government is genuinely committed to ending corruption in the state. After all, it is this promise that brought the Left Democratic Front to power.

Upright officer

Civil activists like CR Neelakandan, who have been spearheading anti-corruption efforts in Kerala for years, say that Thomas brought spine into the Vigilance Department.

“Whoever has sat at the seat of the Vigilance Director over the years has been hand-in-glove with the political establishment,” said Neelakandan. “Most of them refrained from taking tough decisions and used to blame the government for their inability to act. But here we have an officer who has shown that he means business. So, it is no wonder that everyone wants him out.”

Thomas is known to take an unrelenting stand against corruption in every post that he has held, and has gone to great lengths to fight it.

Thomas was a thorn in the flesh of the previous Congress-led United Democratic Front government too. From recommending action against the powerful construction lobby for deviating from fire and safety norms while holding the post of Director General of Police, Fire and Rescue, to initiating the ongoing vigilance case against former Finance Minister KM Mani and former Excise Minister K Babu in the Bar Bribery case, Thomas had given the previous Oommen Chandy government sleepless nights.

In a state that is notorious for dragging on vigilance cases until the government’s term ends or the tainted bureaucrat retires, Thomas adopted a merciless approach when he took over the Vigilance Department.

With him at the helm, more than 20 civil servants and at least half-a-dozen former ministers and politicians of the previous Congress-led United Democratic Front government, who are facing vigilance cases that the department is investigating, are running for cover.

It is no wonder then that the Congress-led Opposition has adopted the role of a silent approver in the attempts to get Thomas out of the anti-corruption body.

Many of the state’s tainted bureaucrats, who control Kerala’s Indian Administrative Service Officers’ Association, have also been exerting pressure on the Chief Minister with regard to Thomas.

In fact, last Friday’s vigilance raids on the properties of Tom Jose, additional chief secretary, who has been accused of amassing wealth beyond his known sources of income, are likely to increase the heat on Thomas. Jose is the president of the state’s Indian Administrative Service Officers’ Association.

“It is not as if the entire fraternity has a problem [with me],” said Thomas. “But certain persons who have issues make it look as if it is the opinion of the entire association just for posturing and keeping the pressure on.”

Political motive

Despite tremendous pressure from multiple quarters, Vijayan is backing Thomas to the hilt and has ruled out a change of guard at the state anti-corruption watchdog.

Last week, the Kerala government even struck out at attempts by the Central Bureau of Investigation to get involved in a case concerning Thomas, saying that the central agency’s move to do so was “strange” and “suspicious”.

The Central Bureau of Investigation had filed an affidavit in the Kerala High Court on Monday saying that it was ready to investigate a complaint of professional misconduct against the Indian Police Service officer. This affidavit was submitted in connection with a petition filed by a person called Sathyan Naravoor who asked that the court order a CBI probe into the case.

The affidavit raised several eyebrows with observers saying that the agency’s desire to get involved in what is seen as a departmental matter, which has already been dealt with by an internal inquiry, was unprecedented.

The High Court, on November 7, will decide whether the case against Thomas merits a CBI investigation.

Political observers point to a political motive in the CBI’s interest in Thomas.

The Kerala Congress (M), the political party led by former Finance Minister KM Mani, which was part of the United Democratic Front until recently, has left the front. Instead, Mani has been making overtures to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, which oversees the Central Bureau of Investigation.

“There is credible information from inside the BJP state leadership,” said political analyst Jaishanker, “that a section of the party is all out to defend Mani and they are the ones who have sent the CBI after Jacob Thomas”.

Added Jayashankar: “They want Thomas out because if he continues, Mani is going to jail and that will hamper any future alliance plans the BJP has in Kerala with the Kerala Congress (M) which has a good Christian vote base in the state.”

The fact that the lawyer who appeared for petitioner Naravoor in his plea against Thomas also represents Mani in the bar bribery case adds to this speculation.

Old case

The case against Thomas is one of misconduct as per the relevant sections of the Indian Civil Services Act. However, a departmental inquiry has already cleared Thomas of the charges. The state government plans to file an affidavit before the High Court mentioning this fact.

In 2009, Thomas was serving as the Managing Director of the Kerala Transport Development Finance Corporation when he went on leave for three months. During that period he acted as Director of TKM Institute of Management in Kollam for which he received a salary. The case against Thomas is that he had violated service rules in doing so. Thomas returned the remuneration after facing criticism, and a departmental inquiry later found him not guilty of misconduct.

“There was no violation of any service rules,” said Thomas. “I had applied to the state government and whatever I did was with the government’s permission. Even if you argue that there is some misconduct here, my disciplinary authority has dealt with it, which, in this case, is the state government. What role does the CBI have in this?”

Senior lawyers echo Thomas’s concerns, saying that the investigative agency’s affidavit was unprecedented.

“It is up to the court to decide whether the allegation should be investigated by a particular agency,” said CP Udayabhanu, special public prosecutor at the Kerala High Court. “But the stand taken by the CBI has surprised us all. The undue haste shown by the CBI to file an affidavit before the court even without the court asking for it is so strange. Right from 1985 I have never seen such a situation. This certainly hints at a mischievous intention.”

Meanwhile, Thomas has written to CBI director Anil Kumar Sinha pointing out that the investigating agency had overlooked rules while filing the affidavit against an officer of his rank.

The chief minister has also strongly backed Thomas in the State Assembly. “Jacob Thomas has been taking strong actions to check corruption and that is why he is being targeted,” said Vijayan in the Assembly on Monday. “However he has the full support of the government. The government has no intention of curtailing the powers of the Vigilance Department.”

Naveen Nair

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own

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