Supreme Court said it was not sold on the "logic" by which the Centre selected and appointed Election Commissioner Arun Goel. The top court's five-judge constitution bench said it was "mystified" and bluntly asked the Centre how it shortlisted four candidates out of the "vast reservoir of names" at their disposal.
Supreme Court—which was hearing pleas for an independent mechanism to appoint Election Commissioners—on Wednesday had asked the Centre to submit files pertaining to the selection and appointment of 1983 batch ex-IAS officer Arun Goel who was named the head of the poll panel on November 19, 2022. The bench wanted to understand the process of appointment and to see if everything was "hunky dory".
The bench observed it would have been more appropriate for the Centre to wait till the matter had concluded before naming anybody for the post which was vacant since May.
A five-judge Constitution Bench on Thursday reserved its verdict after hearing the matter over a span of a week. The top court's decision in this matter will have significant bearing on the appointment of election commissioners who have been accused of "bias" towards the ruling party in the past years.
Credentials okay, but what if poll panel head docile: SC to Centre
Supreme Court clarified that it wasn't questioning ex-IAS officer Arun Goel as an individual, it was simply trying to understand how the Centre chose him to head the poll panel. "We don't have anything against an individual... In fact, this man is excellent in terms of academics," Justice KM Joseph said. "But what if he is docile?" Justice Joseph asked.
"…We are concerned with the structure of the appointment," Justice Joseph added. Outlining the timeline of events, the bench said the Supreme Court began hearing the matter on November 18, and on the same day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recommended Goel for Election Commissioner.
"Why this urgency?" Supreme Court questioned the Centre over the speed with which the files were cleared. Justice Ajay Rastogi, one of the five judges on the bench, pointed out that the poll panel was headless since May. But suddenly, the nomination was announced, and the files were cleared with "lightning speed"; "the file did not even travel for 24 hours", Justice Rastogi observed.
"What due diligence was done? What evaluation was done?" he asked pushing Attorney General R Venkataramani for an answer. The bench asked the Centre if the "aid and counsel" of other ministers were taken. To which, Venkataramani urged the top court not to open this debate and said questioning the Centre's integrity was fraught with larger implications.
"Are we going to question every small dent, every small step of the Executive?" the AG said.
When the Centre said being on the verge of retirement was one of the important criteria, Supreme Court said the selection process "mystified" them. If candidates are shortlisted on this criterion alone, then, the top court said not a single one of them would be able to complete the full term of six years in accordance with the Election Commission Act.
However, the Centre defended Goel's appointment and said it had nothing to hide. "That is how the system has been working. The convention is working. We cannot conclude that there is a quid pro quo because it is happening in a certain way, the AG said asking the SC not to "smell a rat".
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