Activists have questioned the recent appointment of former Law Secretary Suresh Chandra as a central information commissioner, terming it an “arbitrary process” since he had not applied for the post, The Hindu reported on Monday.

According to documents released by the Department of Personnel and Training, Chandra’s name was not on the list of 280 applicants to the post. However, he was among the 14 names that were short-listed.

Chandra had retired in November 2018 as law secretary. He has previously served as Union Finance Minister Jaitley’s private secretary when Jaitley was the law minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government.

Chandra told The Hindu that he had not applied for the post. “This is a high-level quasi-judicial body,” he said. “You will see that many highly qualified candidates do not apply. I also did not apply…I was asked later on, I was approached; but in writing, there was no application.”

Chandra said the search committee was not restricted to applicants, “but to deserving candidates”. “Most applicants are top bureaucrats, not trained in a judicial background,” he said.

In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on August 27, 2018, the Department of Personnel and Training had said that the search committee would shortlist candidates “out of the applications received.”

The Department of Personnel and Training had issued an advertisement for four vacancies in the Central Information Commission on July 27, 2018, setting August 31 as the deadline to receive applications. During a meeting of the search committee, headed by Cabinet Secretary PK Sinha, on September 28, members “were also requested to suggest names of other possible candidates”.

According to minutes of a meeting on November 24, the search committee “also considered the names of serving or retired civil servants as well as other names suggested by members of the search Committee” apart from the applications. The committee then shortlisted 14 names, which included Chandra and Minority Affairs secretary Ameising Luikham, who had also not applied for the position.

Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, said the shortlisting of candidates from outside the list of applicants was in violation of procedure laid out by the department in their own affidavit to the Supreme Court. Bhardwaj is the main petitioner in an ongoing case in the Supreme Court on vacancies in the Central and State Information Commissions.

Bhradwaj said she planned to bring up the “arbitrary” appointment process followed by the Centre to the notice of the Supreme Court at the next hearing on Tuesday.

Bhardwaj alleged that the Department of Personnel and Training had made public the files on the shortlisted candidates and search committee meetings on January 18 after the selection process was complete and the appointments were made. The Supreme Court had directed the department to make the documents public on December 13.

“We need transparency at every stage, and public scrutiny to prevent such an arbitrary process,” Bhardwaj said. “What is the point of releasing this information only when the whole process is over?”

Chandra was also named in an affidavit filed by senior officer of the Central Bureau of Investigation, MK Sinha on November 19, 2018, seeking to intervene in the case on the removal of agency chief Alok Verma. The affidavit alleged that Chandra had called Sana Satish Babu, an accused in the Moin Qureshi corruption case, on November 8, “in order to convey a message of Cabinet Secretary PK Sinha that the Union Government will offer full protection to him.” Chandra denied that he spoke to Babu.

Appointment process

The appointments to the Central Information Commission came weeks after the Supreme Court had asked the Centre to disclose the process of appointment of the members of the Central Information Commission, including details on applicants and search committees. The court had asked the government to maintain transparency in the process.

The Commission, set up under the Right to Information Act, did not have a chief information commissioner at the time, and only had three information commissioners. The Act provides for up to 10 information commissioners. The authority deals with grievances related to RTI requests, and has jurisdiction over all central public authorities.