Justice K.T.Thomas and Fali Nariman were quick to comprehend that their role in the search panel was purely clerical and could have been done by a DoPT section officer

These are hugely contentious times for governance in India. Whatever the United Progressive Alliance government does gets enveloped in a controversy at an amazingly fast pace. The much-heralded Lokpal is no exception. First it was the composition of the selection panel headed by the Prime Minister that generated a debate. Apart from the Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha Meira Kumar and Supreme Court judge H.L Dattu who was nominated by the Chief Justice of India, the group was also to accommodate an eminent jurist. There was distressingly no consensus with regard to this. Senior Supreme Court lawyer P.P. Rao was chosen by three persons in a panel of four, with Ms Swaraj dissenting. She insisted that a few others — former Attorney General K. Parasaran for instance, who had earlier been shortlisted by the government, be considered for the post. Her choices were overruled and her taking up the matter with the President was of no avail either.

Giving a short shrift to the opinion of Ms Swaraj was no way to begin the whole process of giving India the much-needed ombudsman. Going by the majority was only technically correct. Filling a vital public position through consensus would have been a graceful way of selection. Ms Swaraj could not be faulted for demanding the choice of a person who was acceptable to all four members of the selection panel. If this had somehow happened, the nation would have lauded the sagacity of the whole group. This was not to be. Of course, the government could have said it did not push the choice of Mr. Rao and that his name was actually endorsed by two non-government nominees. Fortunately, this was not the stand openly articulated by anybody in authority, as that would have branded the government as being more combative and less democratic. Undisputedly, however, the episode left a bad taste in the mouth. It is ultimately for the public to draw its own conclusions on who was correct on the occasion.

Another hurdle

It is against this backdrop that we have yet another controversy. The rules framed by the government with regard to the Lokpal selection process requires a search panel of eight which will shortlist candidates who will be considered by the selection panel headed by the Prime Minister. Thus we have been burdened with two panels — a search panel and a selection panel to appoint an ombudsman.

On the face of it, this seems like needless complication; a product of the traditionally woolly-headed Indian bureaucracy. The objective of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) was perhaps to lighten the load of the selection committee. This was unexceptionable, but only to an extent.

Justice K.T. Thomas, formerly of the Supreme Court, who was to head the search panel, and Fali Nariman, an eminent lawyer chosen to be part of the panel, were quick to comprehend that their role was purely clerical. What Justice Thomas and the others were asked to do was something that could have been done effortlessly by a DoPT section officer.

The Lokpal search panel was required to merely wade through the nearly 300 applications received by the DoPT, and then recommend names to the Prime Minister-led selection panel. We may not be fair in attributing motives to the person or persons who arrived at this plan. But the DoPT definitely underestimated the intelligence of the two pre-eminent members of the search panel. In the process, they were guilty of humiliating Justice Thomas and Mr. Nariman. To rub salt to their wounds, the department appears to have viewed this serious development as a non-event. This is evident from the fact that there was no major reaction to the decision of the two to withdraw from the panel.

Pride blinds many public officials in the country and prevents them from owning up their mistakes. The most appropriate course of action in this instance would have been to advise the Prime Minister to immediately speak to the two offended men who have been undeniably slighted. After all, the two did not seek the job and had accepted it only out of public spirit. Even now it is not too late to make amends. Knowing as we do, many in the present establishment cannot swallow their pride and display the kind of magnanimity that could repair the combative image of the government.

It is unfortunate that there is little time to bring the Lokpal selection process to its logical conclusion before the next government arrives. The current government has its task cut out. It will have to reflect on what has happened and re-ignite the mechanism. The need is for a transparent and credible selection system. This will require a redrafting of the rules.

First, the requirement that an individual should apply to the DoPT to prove his interest and credentials for being appointed to the Lokpal or to its group of eight seems obnoxious. We want individuals who will not seek this job but who are persuaded to take it up out of a commitment to the nation. They should be those who are viewed by an objective group led by the Prime Minister as eminently suitable both from competence and integrity points of view.

Administratively speaking this may not be the best way to identify talent. But from the point of view of getting the right persons to fill in positions that are expected to help promote integrity among public servants, there is no other way. This course of action will eliminate pompous and greedy elements in society who wish to trespass into a territory where only legally sharp minds and those who have a track record for honesty and public spirit are welcome. Once the search panel arrives at suitable and credible names, the selection panel may have to spend very little time drawing up the final list. It is not my case that those who have already applied for the positions be rejected. They should still be in the reckoning along with new names that may crop up.

What we require is freedom for the search panel to draw up its recommendations instead of being held hostage to what the DoPT places before them. This is as much transparency as we can expect in the present times, marked by venality and partisanship.

(R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI director.)

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