IN what could potentially deepen the trust deficit between the Opposition and the Centre, the appointment of Information Commissioner Heeralal Samariya as the Chief Information Commissioner Monday triggered a political row with Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the Opposition member in the Prime Minister-headed high-powered selection committee, writing to President Droupadi Murmu, saying he was “totally kept in the dark” about the selection.
“It is with extreme sadness and a heavy heart that I bring to your notice that all democratic norms, customs and procedures were thrown to the wind in the matter of selection of the Central Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners,” he wrote, pointing out that the government neither consulted nor informed him about the selection.
Samariya was sworn in as the CIC by Murmu on Monday at a function attended by Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Speaking to The Indian Express, sources close to Chowdhury said he had been told about a meeting, then the dates were changed because of which he had to reschedule his calendar, postpone his travel to Kolkata – only to find out that the CIC’s name had been announced and he hadn’t been told.
According to the Right to Information Act, 2005, the CIC and ICs are appointed by the President on the recommendation of a committee headed by the PM and comprising the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha (in this case the leader of the largest Opposition party) and a Union Minister nominated by the PM.
Chowdhury said officials of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) had reached out to his office in the last week of October seeking his availability for the meeting of the committee. His office informed them that he was available in Delhi until November 2 and that he had to travel to West Bengal to attend a pre-scheduled meeting on November 3.
Chowdhury, however, received a communication from the DoPT informing him that the meeting of the committee was scheduled to take place at 6 pm on November 3. He then wrote to Jitendra Singh, the Minister of State in the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, urging him to reschedule the meeting.
“As for the schedule of the meeting, my office was continuously in touch with officers concerned of the DoPT. It was informed in very clear terms that owing to a pre-scheduled function that I have to attend in West Bengal, it would not be possible for me to attend the meeting as per the schedule proposed,” Chowdhury’s letter dated November 1 said.
He further said: “It was requested that the meeting may be re-scheduled to be held on 1st or 2nd November, 2023, or at 9 am on 3 November, 2023, instead of 6 pm on that day. As I am committed to attend the pre-scheduled meeting in the evening of 3 November, 2023, I am compelled to express my inability to attend the meeting as per the schedule proposed.”
Chowdhury said the government, however, went ahead and appointed Samariya as the CIC without even informing him.
When contacted, a DoPT official declined to comment.
In his letter to the President, Chowdhury said the RTI Act “in consonance with our democratic norms and traditions envisages that the voice of the Opposition too is heard in the process of selection of CIC/ICs.”
“I, despite being a member of the selection committee in my capacity as the leader of the largest Opposition party in Lok Sabha, was totally kept in the dark about the selection of the CIC/ICs, at the meeting that was held at the residence of the PM, November 3, 2023. The fact that within hours of the meeting in which only the PM and the Home Minister were present and the ‘face of the Opposition’, that is, me, as a bona fide member of the selection committee was not present, the names of the selected candidates were announced, notified and also sworn into office, only indicates that the entire selection exercise was predetermined,” he said.
Asserting that he was “extremely keen and enthusiastic to partake in the selection process by attending the meeting had it been convened at a time that would have been suitable to all the members,” Chowdhury said, “the process, as it unfolded within a short span, is not conducive for your democratic ethos and norms.”
“Unfortunately, while the scheduled time of the selection meeting at 6 pm on November 3, 2023, suited the PM and the Home Minister despite their hectic electioneering schedules, my plea for rescheduling the meeting, to be held in the morning on the same day — November 3, 2023 – was totally disregarded, and all my sincere efforts to attend the meeting failed,” he said.
More blatant, he said, was the fact that he was “not even informed of the outcome of the meeting.”
“And even more glaringly, apart from being deprived of the opportunity to be a part of the meeting called in connection with the selection process, I received an invitation this morning for attending the swearing-in ceremony of the newly selected candidates for the posts of CIC/ICs,” he said, and urged the President to “take every possible measure for ensuring that our democratic traditions and ethos do not continue to get diluted by not giving the Opposition its rightful and legitimate place to be heard.”
The post of CIC has been lying vacant following completion of Y K Sinha’s tenure on October 3.
The two ICs who assumed office are Anandi Ramalingam, who was Chairman and Managing Director of Bharat Electronics Ltd, and Vinod Kumar Tiwari, an Indian Forest Service officer who was holding the post of Head of Force-cum-Principal Chief Conservator of Forests as Head of Himachal Pradesh Forest Department.
Sinha’s appointment as CIC in 2020, too, came despite strong objections from Chowdhury at the meeting of the committee. A former IAS officer, Samariya had served as Labour and Employment Secretary. He was appointed IC in November 2020.