In an extraordinary judgment that must count among the sharpest indictments ever handed out to any State government, the Gujarat High Court has upheld Governor Kamla Beniwal's appointment of Justice R.A. Mehta as the Lokayukta over objections by Narendra Modi and his Council of Ministers. The single judge bench of Justice V.M. Sahai ruled that, although the Governor was otherwise required to act on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, she had become obliged to exercise her discretionary powers in this case, because it fell in the rarest of rare category where a “spiteful” Chief Minister and his “brazen” and “irrational” Council of Ministers had put democracy in peril by obstructing the appointment of the Lokayukta. The Gujarat government has expectedly moved the Supreme Court against the judgment. Regardless of the final outcome, what clearly emerges is the divergence between the Bharatiya Janata Party's strongly argued theoretical position in favour of a powerful and independent anti-corruption ombudsman, and the wilful disrespect shown to the same institution by one of its own Chief Ministers — a man showcased as a model chief executive at that.
The Gujarat Lokayukta has been headless since 2003, thanks to a protracted battle over the choice of nominee that saw Mr. Modi ranged against the Governor and the Chief Justice of the High Court. Mr. Modi not only insistently contested the primacy of opinion implicitly granted to the Chief Justice by the Gujarat Lokayukta Act, 1986, but remained stuck on a single name: Justice J.R. Vora, who figured in the panel initially proposed by the Chief Justice, but who subsequently rendered himself ineligible by virtue of his May 2010 appointment as a director of the Gujarat State Judicial Academy. The Chief Minister's intransigence unavoidably led to a situation of confrontation with the Chief Justice, who, after factoring in the State government's objections to Justice Mehta, concluded that he was a better choice for the office. Significantly, one of Mr. Modi's objections to Mr. Mehta was that he took part in a public hearing critical of the Gujarat Government's rehabilitation measures for the victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom. The High Court ruling has admittedly raised genuine concerns about federalism and copycat activism by other State Governors. And yet the BJP cannot easily turn this into a case of Central overreach, ignoring Mr. Modi's own disregard of institutional due process. After all, who can overlook the ironic coincidence of the BJP joining forces with Anna Hazare at a time when its own government in Gujarat was giving shape to a Lokayukta ordinance that ousted the Chief Justice from the consultation process, appointing instead the Chief Minister as the chairperson of the selection committee?