The Centre informing the Supreme Court that it will not take an immediate decision on the appointment of a chairperson and members of the Lok Pal has brought to an end an unnecessary controversy which began with its calling for a meeting of the selection committee on April 27 and 28. In fact, Common Cause, the petitioner, is worried more about the attempt to make an appointment while the Court is seized of the matter than about the propriety of an outgoing government doing it. The petitioner has challenged the rules under which the search committee only scrutinises those applications forwarded to it. There were also serious questions of propriety rightly raised by the main Opposition party, the BJP, as the country is in the middle of a general election. The Lok Pal Bill mustered the numbers in Parliament with great difficulty, and the haste in pushing through an appointment would have negated all the spadework done so far. The very fact that the case is pending should have kept the Government back from proceeding with the matter. The Lok Pal selection process has had its share of controversies, including the problems that resulted in the resignation of the head of the search committee, the former Supreme Court Judge, K.T. Thomas, and of Fali S. Nariman, a member. It is only proper that the first Lok Pal of independent India does not start his or her tenure under a cloud of procedural controversies. There are practical issues too. With Chief Justice P. Sathasivam’s retirement and the constitution of a new government, a new-look selection committee will take charge. It should be the task of the new committee to deal with the issues.
On the other hand, just as a new Chief of the Naval Staff was appointed after the electoral process had begun, after referring the matter to the Election Commission, the process of appointment of the Chief of the Army Staff has been cleared by the Commission. In the case of the Navy, there had been a vacancy at the top for some weeks, but the Army chief would be retiring in June. It has been a longstanding practice to appoint a successor two months before a chief lays down office. A former Army chief and the BJP have reservations about a likely candidate, that need to be considered. Here the main issue is suitability, not timing, and unless there are concerns over conduct and professional responsibility — which the government would be in the best position to judge in this case — the normal criteria combining seniority and merit must be applied. The BJP’s objections merit careful consideration and a cautious approach that cannot, however, be pushed to the point of paralysis. It is important that a one-million-plus-strong professional Army is not allowed to remain in continued uncertainty about its head.