Barely a month away from completing its term, the UPA government is trying to push through the appointment of India’s first ever lokpal — a corruption watchdog to probe allegations against public officers in high places.
This despite a prominent judge and a jurist expressing reservations about the appointment process and wanting no part in it, the Opposition questioning the government’s motives and an ongoing case in the Supreme Court.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh intends to chair a meeting of the selection committee on April 27 or 28 to appoint the lokpal, and wrote to all its members last week asking them to indicate dates between April 24 and 28.
This has attracted strong criticism from the BJP as well as jurists. “The UPA’s urgency to appoint the lokpal shows how desperate they are to cover their backs. They will go to any length to appoint handpicked people,” the BJP’s Nirmala Sitharaman said, adding that her party would oppose the government’s move.
In February, leader of the opposition Sushma Swaraj — part of the selection panel along with the PM, Speaker, chief justice of India or a Supreme Court judge nominated by him and an eminent jurist — had objected to senior advocate PP Rao’s appointment to the panel, saying he was “pro-Congress”.
Common Cause, an NGO that has challenged before the SC the rules governing the appointment of the lokpal, filed a fresh application on Thursday seeking directions to the government “to put the entire selection process for appointment of the chairperson and members of the lokpal… in abeyance”. The court has already issued a notice to the government seeking its response. The case is to be heard on May 5.
“Why the great hurry for such an important appointment when this government is to demit office in the next few weeks,” asked senior advocate and former additional solicitor general Vikas Singh.
He said the appointment, if the government goes ahead with it, would be legally flawed as a new chairman of the search committee has not been appointed after justice KT Thomas’ refusal to head it. “If the law provides for a particular procedure to be followed, i.e. scrutiny of applications by the search committee...it has to be followed. You can’t do away with it,” he said, adding, “Besides, the election commission could put a spanner as we are in the midst of national elections.”
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, who represents Common Cause, said, “It’s a desperate move by the government to somehow appoint their own people in the lokpal.”
The lokpal appointment has been marred in controversy. First, noted jurist Fali S Nariman refused to be part of the seven-member search committee tasked with scrutinising applications and recommending names to the selection panel, fearing “the most competent, the most independent and the most courageous will get overlooked”.
Then, former SC judge Thomas declined to head the search committee, questioning the need for a panel whose recommendations were not binding. Their replacements have not been notified.
But the UPA is still keen to go ahead with the appointment. A government source told HT the PMO was waiting for the availability of Swaraj and minister of state in the PMO V Narayanasamy to hold the meeting. Vidisha and Puducherry, from where Swaraj and Narayasamy are contesting the Lok Sabha polls, vote on April 24.
Four sitting Supreme Court judges are understood have applied to be part of the lokpal.
The sources said Swaraj could come, despite her objections, and make her point. As for the model code of conduct, they said it had been made abundantly clear by the EC that the government could not stop functioning. “We are only following the laid down process,” they added.
The selection process for the lokpal is layered. A sitting or former CJI or SC judge or an eminent jurist will head the watchdog, which is to have four members each from the judicial and non-judicial sides. They are to be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the five-member selection committee. CJI P Sathasivam has nominated justice HL Dattu to the panel while PP Rao is there as a jurist. The selection committee picks names from among those forwarded by the search panel.
Read: A to Z of lokpal bill- India's answer to fighting corruption