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In a setback to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the Supreme Court has upheld the appointment of a Lok Ayukta, the ombudsman for citizen complaints against public servants, by the governor, Kamla Beniwal.
The appointment, of R A Mehta, a retired high court judge, had become an issue of contention between the government and the governor. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had demanded the latter’s removal.
However, on the day of the judgment, Mehta said the state government’s attitude wouldn’t be a hurdle. “I don’t think (the) government's attitude will be a challenge,” he told journalists. He declined to comment on when he would join the office, while welcoming the SC decision, Mehta said the appointment was made in consultation with the chief justice of the Gujarat High Court, whose recommendations were non-political.
Soon after the appointment in August last year, made without consulting the Modi government, the chief minister had challenged the governor’s decision in the HC. And, national BJP leaders such as L K Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley had met the country’s then president, Pratibha Patil, to demand reversal of the decision.
Meanwhile, in Gandhinagar, the state government said it would implement the direction soon, after studying the order. “We will soon implement the Supreme Court judgment. The (court) has accepted the Gujarat government's contention that the governor has to act as per the advice of the council of ministers,” said Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, law minister.
An SC bench of judges B S Chauhan and F M Ibrahim Kalifulla dismissed the Gujarat government’s plea that the appointment was illegal as it was done without consulting the council of ministers. The bench held the governor was bound to act under the advice of the council but the appointment of Mehta was right as it was done in consultation with the chief justice of the high court. The SC also directed the removal of harsh remarks and language used against Modi in the final HC order on the issue.
The post of a Lok Ayukta had been vacant for eight years, with the government not moving on the matter. Finally, on August 25, 2011, the governor issued an order on Mehta’s appointment.
The state government challenged it in the HC the same day, saying it was unilateral and unconstitutional. A two-judge bench gave a split verdict and the matter was referred to a third judge, V M Sahai. He had upheld the appointment and also criticised Chief Minister
Narendra Modi for having created a constitutional crisis. His order had said the governor had the discretionary power to make the appointment.
“This shows the double face of the BJP. They want a Lok Pal at the centre but oppose a Lok Ayukta in their party-ruled Gujarat. Their doublespeak on corruption is for all to see,” said Rashid Alvi, spokesperson for the Congress party.
BJP leaders said their party would go through the SC judgement and it then issue a detailed response.
Gujarat Congress to push for Karnataka-like Lok Ayukta Act
Hailing the Supreme Court verdict on the appointment of the Gujarat Lok Ayukta, the Congress is now planning to propose amendments to the Lok Ayukta Act in the state. This move is aimed at strengthening the powers of the Lok Ayukta on the lines of the the one in Karnataka.
"We welcome the decision of the Supreme Court. We wish that the Lok Ayukta in Gujarat will be as powerful as that in Karnataka. We will make efforts to prove acts of corruption in Gujarat by the BJP ministers and hope that Lok Ayukta will punish them as we've seen in Karnataka," said Shankarsinh Vaghela, Congress MLA, at a media briefing in Ahmedabad on Wednesday.
He alleged the state government had deliberately delayed the appointment of Lok Ayukta in the state so as to avoid investigation in corruption related cases.
As per the Gujarat Lokayukta Act, the Lokayukta can investigate complaints not older than past five years.
"We will demand for an amendment in the existing Gujarat Lokayukta Act to make it stronger and equal to the one in Karnataka," said Shaktisinh Gohil, Congress leader and former leader of Opposition in state assembly.