Lokpal appointments: Gujarati flavour, Lotus fragrance

The first Lokpal team was constituted recently. Justice P C Ghose was appointed Chairperson and Justices D B Bhosale, P K Mohanty, A K Tripathi and Abhilasha Kumari as the judicial members. Retired IRS officer Mahender Singh, IAS officer Dinesh Kumar Jain, IPS officer Archana Ramasundaram and IAS officer Indrajeet Prasad Gautam were appointed as the non-judicial members. The appointments were made after a lengthy legal battle before the Supreme Court. Had it not been for the strict whip of the Supreme Court, the appointments may never have happened.

Three things gain relevance at this juncture. One, the appointments were made at the end of the Narendra Modi government’s term, after the government stalled it for five years. Second, a few interesting features of the composition of the selection committee and the appointments, and third, the complete lack of transparency in the appointments attract attention.

The selection committee initially comprised of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Justice Dipak Misra (finally Justice S A Bobde as designate of current Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi), Lok Sabha Speaker, leader of the largest opposition party — Mallikarjun Kharge, and former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi.

As the Modi government hid behind the absence of a Leader of Opposition (LoP) to stall the Lokpal appointment, in 2017, the Supreme Court ordered that the selection committee should proceed with the appointment of an eminent jurist, among other appointments, without the LoP. The government then appointed its former law officer Mukul Rohatgi as the eminent jurist. Rohatgi, in his three-year tenure as Attorney General had represented the Union of India before the Supreme Court in the case concerning appointment of Lokpal. He had interestingly argued that the appointment of the Lokpal cannot be effected till such time the Lokpal Act is amended to recognise the leader of the single-largest opposition party, in the absence of a clear LoP.

At the recommendation of a committee headed by Rohatgi, the Search Committee Rules were modified to empower it to suggest to the Selection Committee, names beyond the list provided by the Centre.

Clearly, there was a calculated majority of representatives of the ruling establishment in the selection committee, which inspired bias towards recommending candidates favoured by it. This very fact defeated the purpose behind having a Lokpal. Kharge boycotted the committee’s meetings, where an imbalance was quite visible. His status was shrunk to that of a ‘special invitee’.

Search Committee

In another such move, the committee constituted a ‘Search Committee’, headed by Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai, to recommend names for appointments. Again, in the absence of productive participation by Kharge, the search committee, empowered to recommend names beyond names given by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), was constituted by members close to the ruling establishment. Interestingly, the DoPT had released four names of retired Supreme Court judges aspiring to become chairperson or judicial member of the  Lokpal team and Justice Desai was one of the aspirants. However, the names recommended by the search committee headed by Justice Desai were never placed in the public domain. No transparency was observed and there was no occasion for anyone to trace any fact, which may or may not have been disclosed by the candidates, to the notice of the Selection Committee.

As regards the appointments themselves, Justice P C Ghose was part of the bench which heard the corruption case against former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha. The judgement was kept reserved for 252 days, that is, for over eight months, while Jayalalitha struggled for life. It was only after her demise that the judgement was pronounced.

Recently, Justice Chelameshwar had raised questions on this extended reservation of the judgement. Further, Justice Bhaskar Bhattacharya (the then Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court) had written to the President that his elevation to the Supreme Court was blocked for opposing the appointment of the sister of former CJI Altamas Kabir to the Calcutta High Court and that Justice P C Ghose, having favoured her elevation to the bench, got to supersede him.

Justice Abhilasha Kumari, who was till recently the Chairperson of the Gujarat Human Rights Commission, is the daughter of former Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh. She was elevated to the High Court of Himachal Pradesh in 2005 and was brought to the Gujarat High Court within less than a month. She became the first woman Chief Justice of the Manipur High Court merely 13 days before her superannuation.

IRS officer Mahender Singh was reportedly the subject of several charges over his integrity and as such, despite his relative seniority, could not be appointed as a Member of the Central Board of Indirect Tax and Customs. IAS officer Dinesh Kumar Jain was last year appointed as Chief Secretary of BJP-ruled Maharashtra. His tenure was extended as well.

DGP-rank Tamil Nadu-cadre IPS officer Archana Ramasundaram was embroiled in controversy when UPA-2 appointed her as the first woman Additional Director of the CBI in 2014, overlooking the recommendation of the selection committee. Consequently, the state government initiated disciplinary proceedings against her on charges that she had “deserted” office. While the said appointment was in challenge before the Supreme Court, the current government in 2015 posted her to the National Crime Records Bureau.

Finally, there is retired Gujarat-cadre IAS officer Indrajeet Prasad Gautam, who is widely touted as having been instrumental in the progress of Ahmedabad, prominently the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, which PM Modi had showcased as one of his major accomplishments as chief minister of Gujarat. He is at present Managing Director of the Gujarat Metro Rail Corporation.

There is a pattern visible in the appointments — most appointees are influential, politically well-connected, especially to the current ruling establishment (note, especially, the Gujarat connections).

It is clear that the Lokpal team has been deliberately constituted in an opaque manner and those close to the ruling establishment have been chosen. Should we be happy and content that we finally have a Lokpal team or should we ponder over how the selections were made?  

(The writer is an Advocate in the Supreme Court)

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