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CJI Gogoi nominates Justice Sikri to be part of panel that will decide Alok Verma’s fate

CJI Gogoi nominates Justice Sikri to be part of panel that will decide Alok Verma’s fate

Chief Justice had authored the judgment that reinstated Verma as the CBI director but said his continuance is subject to clearance by the selection panel

A day after a judgment authored by him reinstated Alok Verma as the CBI director, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi has informed the government that he was stepping aside from the high-powered panel that has to decide whether the complaints against the investigation agency’s boss warrant his dismissal.

Justice AK Sikri, the senior-most judge in the apex court after the Chief Justice, will now be part of the panel that also comprises the Prime Minister and Congress leader in Lok Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge.

The verdict on Verma’s petition challenging the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and Centre’s decision of divesting him of his responsibilities on October 23 was given by a bench of Chief Justice Gogoi and Justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph.

The judgment, authored by Chief Justice Gogoi, and pronounced by Justice Kaul, on Tuesday (January 8), said that Verma could be reinstated as the CBI director. However, it added that the selection panel which nominates the agency’s top boss – comprising of the Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India and the Leader of Opposition – must decide, within a week, whether the complaints of graft and misconduct against Verma, filed with the CVC by CBI special director Rakesh Asthana (who was also sent on leave on October 23), warrant his dismissal from office. The verdict also prevented Verma from taking any “major policy decisions” until the selection panel decides on his fate, although his term as the CBI director is set to end on January 31.

As soon as the verdict was pronounced, doubts were raised on whether the Chief Justice’s decision of referring the matter to the selection panel for further action raised a question of propriety and conflict of interest, given the fact that he had himself authored the judgment that reinstated Verma as the CBI director.

The Chief Justice’s decision, on Wednesday (January 9), to step down from the panel and instead nominate the top court’s second senior-most judge – Justice AK Sikri – to take his place, effectively addresses and blunts any concerns of propriety as far as the judiciary’s representation on the selection committee is concerned.

However, it must also be pointed out that while Chief Justice Gogoi’s action insulates him, and by extension the highest judiciary, from any charge of conflict of interest, the selection panel’s meeting is unlikely to be a smooth affair.

Besides Justice Sikri, the panel has as its members Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Leader of the largest Opposition party (the Congress) in Lok Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge. The decision to send Verma on leave was, undoubtedly, approved by Modi – remember that the Centre, through its finance minister, Arun Jaitley, had not only assiduously defended the order against Verma but also indicated it to be a decision taken at the highest echelons of the government right until the Supreme Court struck it down. Kharge had, through senior advocate and his party colleague Kapil Sibal, moved an application in the top court tagged with Verma’s petition to challenge the CVC order against the CBI chief. Where the political faces of the committee – Modi and Kharge – stand on the matter of Verma is, thus, clearly known.

It now remains to be seen how the selection panel, divided as it is on the question of continuance of Verma in office, maneuvers through the tricky task it has at hand. Meanwhile, with Verma’s superannuation fast approaching, observers are keenly awaiting his moves as he returns to office – anticipating above all else whether or not he orders a preliminary enquiry into the Rafale Deal, a decision sources say he was about to take when the midnight orders of sending him on leave arrived.

— India Legal Bureau