Besides some sharp comments and questions on the appointment process for the Election Commission of India, the Supreme Court has now asked for specific files: On the November 19 appointment of Arun Goel to the commission. The hearing will continue on Thursday.
The five-judge Constitution bench headed by Justice KM Joseph said it wants to know if there was any “hanky panky” in the appointment as he was only recently given voluntary retirement and immediately appointed to the poll body.
Arun Goel’s appointment was mentioned by activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan during the hearing of a batch of petitions on the very process. Mr Bhushan underlined that Mr Goel, a recently-retired IAS officer, was made part of the three-member Election Commission — besides chief Rajiv Kumar and Anup Chandra Pandey — just after the larger issue came up for hearing last week.
“Arun Goel was, till Thursday, working as a secretary-level officer in the government. Suddenly, he was given VRS on Friday and appointed as an election commissioner,” Mr Bhushan said. He was otherwise to retire on December 31 at the age of 60.
The court rejected the objections by the government lawyer, Attorney General R Venkataramani, who said it wasn’t right to take up individual instances.
“We want to see what is the mechanism. We will not treat it as an adversarial and keep it for our record, but we want to know as you claim that everything is hunky dory… You have time till tomorrow,” the court told the government lawyer.
Arun Goel took charge only this Monday, November 21, according to the commission’s website. An IAS officer of the 1985 batch from the Punjab cadre, he retired as Secretary, Union Ministry of Heavy Industry, after more than 37 years of service.
He is now in line to be Chief Election Commissioner after Rajiv Kumar demits office in February 2025.
The specific “hanky panky” check comes at a time when the court has been rather scathing in its observations on the wider process.
Pointedly about its independence, the court today presented a “hypothesis” for the central government: “Do you think the Election Commissioner… if he’s asked to take on none less than the Prime Minister — it’s just an example — and he doesn’t come around to doing it: Will it not be a case of complete breakdown of the system?”
It also cited how “one of the Election Commissioners, in fact, resigned”. The court did not take names, rather arguing its central point that the appointment system requires “a larger body” than just the union cabinet to decide on names. “There is a dire need for change.”
The court has already flagged how Article 324 of the Constitution — on appointment of election commissioners — does not chalk out a procedure. It envisages a law by Parliament to define the process, but that’s not been made in the last 72 years.
The government has cited a 1991 law and past conventions of appointment recommended by the PM-led cabinet to the President, who then picks an officer. “Stray instances cannot be the grounds for the court to interfere. To safeguard the position is our endeavour,” the government’s lawyer submitted earlier today.
“First a list is prepared of all senior bureaucrats. And then the list is sent to the Law Ministry which is then forwarded to the PM,” the lawyer explained, and said, “The existing system is working fine and there is no trigger point for the court to intervene.”
The court stressed that it wasn’t saying the system is not correct. “There should be a transparent mechanism,” it added.
The government lawyer argued further, “The court cannot interfere in the system only because we cannot show every single file how the appointment was done. You need to show instances wherein some wrong has happened. Merely on likelihood, apprehension or anxiety, interference from the court is not called for.”
It is in this background that the court has sought the files on a specific appointment — that of the latest pick, Arun Goel.