SC Questions ‘Tearing Hurry’ in Union Govt’s Appointment of Arun Goel as EC
In successive questions to the government, the Supreme Court also sought to know why the Union law ministry had not suggested names of people who could complete their six-year tenure at the EC.
The Supreme Court on Thursday, November 24, questioned the “haste” and “tearing hurry” in appointing Arun Goel as Election Commissioner. The Attorney General for India asked the apex court to “hold its mouth”.
As LiveLaw has reported, advocate Prashant Bhushan had informed the apex court that that Goel’s appointment was notified within two days of him having received voluntary retirement from service.
At the outset, a five-judge Constitution bench headed by Justice K.M. Joseph perused the Union government’s original file pertaining to Goel’s appointment as EC, and said, “What kind of evaluation is this? Although, we are not questioning the merits of Arun Goel’s credentials but the process.”
A day ago, the Supreme Court had asked the Union government to produce the file, saying while the demand was not adversarial, “we want to know, as you claim that everything is hunky dory.” The bench said it wanted to know whether there was any “hanky panky”.
As the bench, which also comprised Justices Aniruddha Bose, Hrishikesh Roy and C.T. Ravikumar, questioned the “lightning speed” with which Goel was appointed an EC, the Union government through Attorney General for India R. Venkataramani vehemently urged the bench not to make observations without “looking into the entire issue pertaining to the appointment process.”
“Please hold your mouth for a while. I request to look into the issue in entirety,” the top-most law officer told the bench.
Justice Ajay Rastogi, who is also a part of the bench, told Venkataramani, “You have to listen to the court carefully and answer the questions. We are not on individual candidates but on the process.”
The attorney general agreed that he is bound to answer the questions of the court.
The top court said the 1985-batch IAS officer got voluntary retirement from service in a single day, his file was cleared by the Union law ministry in a single day, a panel of four names were put up before the prime minister and Goel’s name got the nod from the President within 24 hours.
“On 18th we hear the case, on same day you move the file, on same day PM says I recommend his name. Why this urgency?…It says based on the list maintained, there are 4 names that you have recommended. I want to understand that out of vast reservoir of names, how do you actually select a name…Someone who was about to be superannuated in December. He is the youngest among the 4 names who were recommended. Is that a criteria? How did you select?” the bench said, according to LiveLaw.
The court questioned why, when the vacancy had arisen on May 15, the process was delayed until November 18, and then suddenly fast tracked.
“Can you show us from 15th May to 18th November, what did you do? What prevailed upon the govt that you did this appointment superfast on one day? Same day process, same day clearance, same day application, same day appointment. File has not even travelled 24 hours also. Lightning fast!” Justice Ajoy Rastogi said.
The Attorney General claimed appointments to the EC usually did happen fast.
The bench also said none of the four names in the panel were “carefully hand-picked” by the Union law minister – Kiren Rijiju – so that they could complete a six-year tenure.
“You are required to pick up people who should get 6 years as EC. Now you haven’t picked up such people who will get ordinary period of 6 years as EC either…This is a violation of Section 6 of the Chief Election Commissioner & Other Election Commissioners (Conditions of Service) Act, 1991,” Justice Joseph noted.
Venkataramani responded that there is a mechanism and criteria for selection and there cannot be a scenario where the government has to look back at every officers’ track record and ensure that he completes the six-year tenure.
The court noted that in this case, the “proviso had become the rule.”
Under the Election Commission (Conditions of Service of Election Commissioners and Transaction of Business) Act, 1991, an EC can have a tenure of six years or up to the age of 65, whichever is earlier.
Referring to Goel’s appointment, the Attorney General said his profile is important and not the voluntary retirement which is being made an issue.
The bench said the 1991 Act says that the EC’s tenure is of six years and the government has to ensure that the person who holds the post completes the stipulated period.
The top court said it is “struggling” to find the reasons and objects on how the Law Minister selected a panel of four names who were not going to complete the stipulated six-year tenure.
It is hearing a batch of pleas seeking a collegium-like system for the appointment of ECs and the Chief Election Commissioner.
This bench, two days ago, had observed that a committee which includes the Chief Justice of India might ensure the most transparent way of selecting election commissioners.
On November 19, Goel, a Punjab cadre IAS officer, was appointed as election commissioner. Goel would be in line to be the next CEC after incumbent Rajiv Kumar demits office in February 2025. His total tenure in the Election Commission would be of over five years.
He will join Kumar and Election Commissioner Anup Chandra Pandey on the poll panel.
There was a vacancy in the Election Commission (EC) following the retirement of previous CEC Sushil Chandra in May.
Goel was the secretary in the Ministry of Heavy Industries till recently and his voluntary retirement came into effect on November 18. He has also served in the Union culture ministry.
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