Accepting responsibility for an error is another way of saying sorry. This is exactly what the prime minister did when he told Parliament that he had made an error of judgment in appointing P.J. Thomas as chief vigilance commissioner and he accepted full responsibility for this mistake. This might be read as a very noble and gracious gesture befitting a man of Manmohan Singh’s stature and integrity. What will go unnoticed is that the prime minister expressed his regrets on the wrong issue and by so doing he diminished the authority of the government he leads. The appointment of the CVC is an executive prerogative; what documents are considered relevant for the appointment should therefore also be a part of the prerogative. There is no proof as yet that Mr Thomas is guilty as charged. He is, as of now, innocent by the laws of the land, and has the reputation of being an honest officer within his peer group. It is indeed unfortunate that the case against Mr Thomas has dragged on for over a decade. By delaying justice the judiciary has underlined the saying, justice delayed is often justice denied. If the judiciary had pronounced its verdict with reasonable swiftness, the present problem would not have arisen at all. As the matter stands, there is nothing to show that there were any mala fide motives behind Mr Thomas’s appointment. By admitting a public interest litigation, the Supreme Court cast a shadow on the prime minister’s integrity and on an innocent officer. The prime minister had no reasons to regret this since he had acted within the ambit of his prerogative and out of the best possible motives.
There was, however, a different aspect of the same issue that the prime minister should have noted. In appointing Mr Thomas, the prime minister and the home minister, P. Chidambaram, ignored the principle of consensus that is so critical to democratic governance. This principle has been set aside in other appointments as well — for example when Navin Chawla was made the chief election commissioner and more spectacularly when an unknown lady was made the head of the Indian State. Mr Singh succumbed to the lure of using the principle of majority. In the appointment of Mr Thomas, he could have easily followed the suggestion made by Sushma Swaraj who was a member of the high-powered committee and was in favour of appointing any of the other two candidates who were on the short list.
By ignoring consensus, Mr Singh embraced controversy. It is ironic that the prime minister sought controversy when consensus was possible; and he has conceded ground to the apex court when confrontation would have borne the stamp of his executive authority. India expects more from its scholar prime minister.