Supreme Court to hear petition challenging the appointment of Arun Goel as election commissioner

Goel was appointed an election commissioner a day after he voluntarily retired from IAS. Earlier this year, a Constitution Bench had summoned the records of appointment of Goel as election commissioner. After going through them, it had observed that it found Goel’s “extraordinarily remarkable foresight” in applying for voluntary retirement a day before he was appointed as an election commissioner “a little mystifying.

TOMORROW, a division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices K.M. Joseph and B.V. Nagarathna will hear a petition challenging the appointment of former Union secretary in the Ministry of Heavy Industry, Arun Goel, as election commissioner, on the ground that Goel’s appointment is against the institutional integrity and independence of the Election Commission of India.

The petition, filed by the organisation Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) alleges that the government and Goel carefully orchestrated a ‘selection procedure’ for their own benefit.

Goel was hurriedly appointed within 24 hours as EC on November 19 last year while a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court was hearing a petition to lay down the procedure for the appointment of election commissioners by a neutral independent committee.

Interestingly, the vacancy which came to be filled by Goel had been created on May 15, 2022. Goel was due to retire from the Indian Administrative Service on December 31, 2022, but he requested voluntary retirement on personal grounds on November 18, 2022, and it was approved on the very same day.

In its petition, filed through Advocate Prashant Bhushan, ADR has highlighted the following points:

  • The Union of India, while substantiating the appointment of Goel, submitted that he was the youngest of the four persons on the prepared panel and thereby would have the longest tenure in the ECI. However, the Constitution Bench in its judgment in Anoop Baranwal v Union of India delivered on March 2, 2023, found that the panel was so created so as to oust the remaining candidates on the ground of age, thereby leaving the field open for Goel to be appointed on the ground of him being younger. In other words, a deficient panel was deliberately created to justify the appointment on the ground of the very deficiency, that is, age.
  • The panel list published by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) on their website shows that a total of 160 officers belong to the 1985 batch and some of them are younger than Goel.
  • The government, in its short note on the appointment of Goel, had submitted that the Minister of Law and Justice, after considering the database of DoPT, prepared a panel consisting of names of the candidates for consideration of appointment. However, the note failed to furnish the criteria on the basis of which the panel was prepared.

There is no explanation as to why the officers who were younger in age than Arun Goel and who would have a full tenure of six years as mandated by Section 4 (terms of office) of the Election Commission (Conditions of Service of Election Commissioners and Transaction of Business) Act, 1991 were not empanelled, especially when the reason given to the court for selection of Goel over other persons on the panel was that he was younger in age than others who were empanelled,” the petition contends.

The petition argues that the entire ‘selection procedure’ was a foregone conclusion from the get-go as on November 18, 2022, Goel, “with extraordinarily remarkable foresight“, requested voluntary retirement on personal grounds.

The request was forwarded by DoPT to the chief secretary of government of Punjab, the cadre controlling authority on the same date, i.e., November 18, 2022. The government accepted the request for voluntary retirement on the same date and waived off the condition of three-month notice for voluntary retirement. On November 19, 2022, Arun Goel was appointed as election commissioner,” the petitioner states.

The Constitution Bench which had summoned the records of the appointment of Goel, after going through them, observed that it was a little mystifying as to how the officer had applied for voluntary retirement on November 18, 2022 if he was not in the know about the proposal to appoint him.

The Bench also observed that though Goel was younger than the others who had been empanelled, he still would not have a complete tenure of six years as is mandated by Section 4 of the Election Commission (Conditions of Service of Election Commissioners and Transaction of Business) Act, 1991. The court has held that a tenure shorter than six years would impinge on the independence of the Election Commission of India.

On March 2 this year, a Constitution Bench comprising Justices K.M. Joseph, Ajay Rastogi, Aniruddha Bose, Hrishkesh Roy and C.T. Ravikumar, held that the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and election commissioners would be on the recommendation of a committee consisting of the Chief Justice of India, the Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha.

In its judgment, the Bench also made scathing observations on the hurried appointment of Goel as election commissioner.

The Leaflet