Any 'hanky panky': SC asks Centre to produce files related to appointment of EC Arun Goel

NewsDrum Desk
23 Nov 2022

New Delhi, Nov 23 (PTI) The recent appointment of election commissioner Arun Goel came under the scanner of the Supreme Court which asked the Centre on Wednesday to produce the original files related to his selection, saying it wanted to know whether there was any "hanky panky".

The top court also rejected its objections to its order for producing the original records and said it wants to know whether everything was "hunky dory" in the appointment process as claimed by the government, as Goel was only recently given voluntary retirement from service. The Centre was given time till Thursday to produce the files.

A five-judge bench headed by Justice KM Joseph also observed there is a need for the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) to be independent and person of character, and posed a hypothetical question asking will it not be a case of complete breakdown of the system if the CEC does not act if there are some allegations against a prime minister.

“Do you think the election commissioner, if he is asked to take on none less than the prime minister--we are saying it as an example, can he say no?” Justice Joseph asked after the Centre claimed that its present system of appointment of Election Commissioners and the Chief Election Commissioner appointed on the basis of seniority by convention has been “fairly doing well”.

“Suppose for example, there are some allegations against the prime minister and the CEC has to act but he does not act. Will it not be a case of complete breakdown of the system (Election Commission)?” “The CEC should be insulated from political influence and needs to be independent and person of character. These are aspects on which you have to delve into on why we require an independent larger body for selection and not just the union council of ministers," the bench also comprising Justices Ajay Rastogi, Aniruddha Bose, Hrishikesh Roy and CT Ravikumar said.

On the appointment of Goel, a 1985 batch IAS officer, the court said it is only looking into the mechanism and see whether everything was according to the process. Goel, who would be in line to be the next CEC after incumbent Rajiv Kumar demits office in February 2025, was appointed as an EC on November 19.

"We want to know whether there was any hanky panky in the appointment of this man. We are not concerned about any other thing," the court said, as it rejected the objections put forth by Attorney General R Venkataramani over its insistence on going through the file while it was hearing the larger issue of appointment of election commissioners and chief election commissioner.

Opposition parties latched on to the court direction for production of the files and accused the BJP government of weakening the three-member Election Commission, and raised doubts over the selection of poll panel members.

The Congress, TMC, JD(U), RJD and the Left parties said the Election Commission should be above board to ensure free and fair polls, and some of them demanded that key appointments of the poll body be made by a special panel like in the case of the CBI Director.

Congress spokesperson and senior lawyer Abhishek Singhvi told reporters that the Centre should never object to showing appointment papers regarding Arun Goel to the apex court, especially since a Constitution bench is seized of the issue of appointment of EC members.

"Does the Centre have something to hide? Daal mein kya kuchh kaala hai? Yaa daal hi kaali hai?" Singhvi said, suggesting something is not right.

The apex court noted that it had started hearing a batch of pleas seeking a Collegium-like system for the appointment of ECs and the CEC last Thursday and Goel was appointed as an EC on November 19.

"We want to see what prompted the step. We want to see what the mechanism is. We will not treat it as an adversarial (move) and keep it for our record, but we want to know as you claim that everything is hunky dory. Since we were hearing the matter and appointment was made amidst, this may be interlinked. You have time till tomorrow. Produce the documents," the court told Attorney General Venkataramani.

The AG told the court that it is dealing with the larger issue of appointment of ECs and the CEC, and it cannot look at an individual case flagged by advocate Prashant Bhushan.

"I take serious objection to this and have my reservation to the court seeing the file amidst the hearing of a Constitution bench," he contended.

The court further said that Bhushan had told the court last Thursday that an interlocutory application has been filed seeking filling of one vacancy in the election commission and the next day the appointment was made.

At the outset, Bhushan, who appeared on behalf of petitioner Anoop Baranwal and made his rejoinder submission, said after the court started hearing the matter, the government hurriedly appointed an election commissioner.

"This election commissioner 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." He added that the government appointed someone in a single day and no one knows what process was followed and what safeguards were taken.

Justice Joseph said, as far he recalls, it takes three months for a person to get voluntary retirement.

"You need to produce before us the original file regarding the appointment of this officer. If there is no illegality, then you should not be afraid." While Justice Roy told Venkataramani his objection looked like he was prejudging the mind of the court, Justice Joseph remarked, "Please tell us whether you will produce the files or not unless you have an objection to that. If not, we will leave the matter at that and close the hearing." Venkataramani said the court need not travel that far and that he was only trying to satisfy himself whether it would be appropriate for the bench to look into the file of an isolated incident in the midst of the hearing of a larger issue.

"If there is a need to show (the files) to the court, we will certainly show it. If any wrong has happened, I as an attorney general would myself bring to the notice of the court. It is my duty as the law officer. This court cannot look into an isolated incident just because it was flagged by someone. The post was vacant since May which was filled." Justice Joseph responded to say, "If you feel you should not disclose the file, then let us know. You have time till tomorrow. If you are busy, you can ask someone to place the file before us." PTI MNL SK ASG ASK SKC RT GSN GSN GSN

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