Fight against graft in Kerala received a major setback as the person who spearheaded it Jacob Thomas has been unceremoniously asked to proceed on leave.
Hardly two weeks ago, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told the state Assembly, "Nobody needs to eye the chair of the state’s vigilance director as there was no plan to shift out Jacob Thomas." Thomas is well known to be the hallowed ‘Man Friday’ for Vijayan when it comes to fighting corruption.
But surprising even the staunchest of critics, the government on 31 March asked Thomas to move out of the office of the director of State Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB) and go on a month's leave.
Ten months down the line after bringing in a ‘no-nonsense’ officer at the helm of the state’s Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau at the behest of a chief minister who claims to be taking the corruption bull by its horns, the same government has shown him the door.
Now on leave for a month, Jacob Thomas broke his silence to Firstpost from his residence at Thiruvananthapuram.
When asked him why he was asked to leave, Thomas very reluctantly said, "Really I don’t know the reason and that is my straight answer. But my deductive logic is that either there is a change in policy or they feel this person is not the apt person to implement the existing policy. Although this can be the assessment, I cannot say anything for sure."
Thomas went on to say that some of the creative vigilance steps that were put in place were slowly falling out of priority for the government and the clarity on what is the priority when fighting corruption was being lost with time.
The outgoing vigilance head also told Firstpost that he was struggling to ensure that the anti-corruption law was equally applicable to all. "The anti-corruption law is equally applicable to everyone. But that is not very digestible to everyone. That is a reality and that is a huge problem," said Thomas.
Thomas, however, refused to attribute his above comment to the two high-profile cases the vigilance was investigating, one involving a former minister who had resigned for nepotism charges and another involving a sports lottery scam, both having high stakes for the Vijayan government.
If sources inside the vigilance directorate are to be believed there was tremendous resistance right at the top of state’s bureaucracy while dealing with former minister Jayarajan’s case. The case against Malabar Cements managing director Padmakumar is perhaps another example where the entire bureaucracy had ganged up against Thomas.
But Thomas says that this has been set pattern all throughout. "See when I catch a clerk in an RTO or an SI at a check post or a village officer taking bribes, there is no resistance in the follow-up action at the government secretariat. Then there is no such effort to subvert the law."
What did Thomas get into?
A few days ago, between his ouster and the chief minister’s statement openly supporting him in the Assembly, one judge by the name justice P Ubaid of the Kerala High Court made an unusual remark.
The judge while hearing a petition filed against a vigilance case asked the state government why the director was allowed to continue in service despite according to him the director has made a ‘vigilance raj in Kerala’.
Many believe that this adverse observation from the high court, though merely oral, that tilted the scales against Thomas. Incidentally, Ubaid is the same judge before whose bench some of the most important cases that could very well decide the course of the Vijayan government is to come up for hearing in the next few days. From KM Mani’s bar bribery to EP Jayarajan’s nepotism to the potentially all destroying SNC Lavalin case that could indict the chief minister himself is before justice Ubaid’s bench.
Political observers are quick to put two and two together. Although Firstpost cannot independently verify its veracity, political and anti-corruption activists are rushing to the conclusion that since the same judge has his hands full of armaments against the government, the chief minister had no option but to buckle under pressure.
Hence many say that it is far from being a coincidence that the chief minister has gone an extra mile to keep the judiciary in good humour, a claim that this publication cannot verify independently.
Advocate Jaishanker who had been the first and among the very few to point out the anomaly says, “This is an unprecedented situation. Surely the Lavalin case’s outcome would have played on the mind of the chief minister and he would have picked the judiciary above the vigilance director since it is a question of his survival. Otherwise, how do you explain this u-turn in a matter of days after going all out to protect Thomas at the Assembly?" asks Jaishanker.
When the same question was put to Thomas, though he refused to comment on the issue threw another question at this reporter. "This is not the fist time that such a remark has come. For the last few months, such remarks had been emanating from the same bench. So how come it has made an impact now?" he asked.
Thomas goes on to say that he had been a director in 2015 and 2016 too and then too the same high court had been there. "How are such comments coming out now only?” he asks. When asked if he believed that there was a conspiracy at play now, he said he had no idea and would not like to comment on it.
But senior journalists are saying that Thomas has himself to blame for the high court’s stand.
"Perhaps the government did not have many options. It was only going to get worse for Thomas because the report compiled by the outgoing chief secretary as per the direction of the high court clearly outlines a number of violations by this man. So obviously the legal advice the government would have received may have been not to antagonise the court at a time when it cannot afford to," says Jacob George, senior journalist, The Hindu.
But perhaps what stands out is that the two senior IAS officers in the state, additional chief secretary for finance KM Abraham and additional chief secretary for Industries Paul Antony who had provided the major share of inputs for the dossier on Thomas are currently facing vigilance probes against them initiated by Thomas himself.
In fact, the whole power struggle involving the vigilance director and the top brass of the bureaucracy with a section of the IAS officers’ even threatening strike has its origins in such cases that Thomas had initiated against the high and mighty who are well placed in the all powerful IAS Association in the state.
But then recently there had been some serious allegations against Thomas too. There had been media reports of him allegedly concealing details of his assets in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka including what is alleged to be part of a forest land and alleged irregularities in purchasing a dredger during his time as ports director.
"See Thomas went after one and all in the service. But then when all these people started to dig his assets and activities, for wanting to have a defence mechanism against him, it seems things started falling from the cupboard," said George.
But surprisingly, the very chief minister who has asked him to step down now had initially rubbished the allegations and even told the Assembly that the director cannot be removed on such flimsy media reports.
It is an argument that will come back to not only haunt the chief minister but also give enough ammunition to the BJP and the Congress to go after Vijayan. The BJP is also calling the sacking of Thomas as a direct evidence of the Left government’s double standards when it comes to fighting corruption in the state.
"When you wanted to fight Mani and Babu then you made sure that Thomas was the symbol of your anti-corruption crusade. Now that your own (meaning EP Jayarajan) is facing the heat you take up the sword against him and dump him conveniently. We are not saying that Thomas has (made) no mistakes. But how can you expect him to have two different ways of dealing with the corruption? BJP feels the government is doing this to protect their corrupt leaders," said MS Kumar, BJP state spokesperson.
It is not just the BJP that is sensing foul play in the sudden removal of Thomas. The Congress-led UDF (United Democratic Front) which is the principal Opposition is also calling the chief minister’s bluff.
Though the Congress had always been against Thomas for his uncompromising stand against some of its top leaders during the erstwhile UDF government, Congress MLAs say that his removal now only exposes the government’s double standards.
"We think the chief minister had given Thomas a blank cheque just because he was anti-UDF. But now I think Vijayan himself wanted him out because he was becoming too hot to handle. It only shows their double standards," says Anil Akkara, Congress MLA from Wadakancherry.
What the detractors say
But there are others who question his utility in the last ten months since this government came to power and say that he was mostly ‘all talk and no work’.
“See on one side while he has been talking of taking on Babu, Mani, and others, the truth is all those cases haven’t reached anywhere. Even the chargesheet could not be filed on time. What he necessarily achieved was because of all the raids he did on top IAS officers, the bureaucracy got demoralised, most activities were stalled and because of that governance took a back seat,’’ says Roy Mathew, a veteran journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram.
There is no denying the fact that the vigilance department had lost the initial initiative it showed in chasing cases against ex-minister K Babu and KM Mani in the bar bribery case and a high profile land deal in the Pattoor land scam.
But Thomas says the vigilance department had received close to 14,000 petitions in the last ten months alone compared to the corresponding ten months before him where just 4,000 complaints were received.
“All these complaints have been sent by the poorest of the poor who are affected and they do that because they trust me. We had a work in progress and you need to judge my work with whatever minimal resources I have at my disposal and not based on what those people say who stand to lose it or who are at the receiving end of the law," said Thomas.
Way ahead for vigilance in Kerala
At the moment though the Director General of Police (DGP), Loknath Behera is in charge of the Vigilance Directorate, sources among the top civil servants in the state say, no one wants to get into that hot seat for now. It only goes to show how controversial the post of the director at the state’s Vigilance and Anti-Corruption bureau has become.
But when you have an administration that first declares a zero tolerance policy on corruption gets perhaps the best man to do the job and gloats over it, backs him against the wishes of an entire civil service in the state and then unceremoniously dumps him one day, it only serves to set doubts in the minds of the entire workforce in the state.
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Updated Date: Apr 04, 2017 18:06:24 IST