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India's top anticorruption official steps down

Dogged by a 1992 kickback scandal, Polayil Joseph Thomas resigns after the Supreme Court rules his appointment to India's Vigilance Commission was illegal.

March 04, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Polayil Joseph Thomas is seen in May, when he was chairman of the World Telecommunication Development Conference. He stepped down after a court ruled that his appointment to the Central Vigilance Commission was invalid.
Polayil Joseph Thomas is seen in May, when he was chairman of the World Telecommunication… (Noah Seelam, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from New Delhi — In a further blow to a government battered by accusations of graft, India's senior anticorruption official resigned Thursday after the Supreme Court ruled his appointment illegal because of his involvement in a 1992 scandal that is now a legal case.

Polayil Joseph Thomas, appointed in September to head India's Vigilance Commission, stepped down after the court's ruling on a petition challenging his appointment.

India's coalition government, led by the Congress Party, has been battered in recent months by alleged irregularities involving sports, telecommunications and real estate deals potentially involving tens of billions of dollars, making Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 78, appear tired and increasingly ineffectual.

"I'm pleased with the results," said Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer who helped file the petition against Thomas. "Hopefully it will make a difference. But a lot more needs to be done. We need a completely independent corruption body."

Singh is generally seen as honest and above reproach. But this is the first scandal to touch him personally, given that he and the nation's powerful Home Affairs minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, approved Thomas's appointment. Singh pledged Thursday to answer critics in Parliament in the near future.

"This is a self-inflicted wound," said Vinod Mehta, a political commentator and editor of Outlook magazine. "It's an additional blow to the patient, the patient being the [Congress-led] government and the prime minister."

In the 1992 scandal, alleged kickbacks to government officials over a 1,500-ton shipment of palm oil from Malaysia reportedly cost the state treasury $500,000. Thomas, a career civil servant who has master's degrees in physics and economics, signed the order allowing the deal to go through.

In court documents, Thomas defended his "impeccable integrity" and said senior officials frequently face drawn-out legal cases that are politically motivated.

Some analysts said Thomas, who enjoys an upstanding reputation, may have been the victim of politics and a bureaucratic system that pressures underlings to sign papers on behalf of senior officials or resign, which most aren't willing to do.

"The Supreme Court's initiative is a good one, putting pressure on the government for more transparent appointments," said Prem Shankar Jha, a political analyst. "But on a personal basis, it may be unfair. It's a 19-year-old case and whatever happened in 1992, his record's been good since then."

The court didn't consider the merits of the corruption case, but chided the government for making an appointment that did not avoid any hint of wrongdoing. The nominating committee "has to take into consideration what is good for the institution and not for the candidate," it wrote in its opinion. "The touchstone is public interest."

Among the recent scandals include the arrest last month of former Telecommunications Minister Andimuthu Raja on suspicion of under-pricing cellphone broadband spectrum licenses at a potential loss to the government of as much as $39 billion.

Questions have also surfaced over the bidding for last year's Commonwealth Games, in which tens of millions of taxpayer dollars were allegedly siphoned off. The media has also showcased the illegal construction of a 31-story apartment complex in Mumbai. The units, on military land and intended for war widows, were sold at a steep discount to well-connected politicians and bureaucrats.

"Corruption just seems to be getting worse," said Bhushan, the lawyer and a longtime anticorruption activist. "We've entered an era where natural resources and public assets are given over to private corporations, so the scope for corruption is enormous."

Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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