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Sushma on clash course over Lokpal panel

New Delhi, Feb. 4: Sushma Swaraj rejected the Prime Minister’s choice of a jurist for the search panel that will select the Lokpal, setting the stage for a Centre-Opposition confrontation ahead of the general election.

Manmohan Singh had picked P.P. Rao, a senior Supreme Court advocate who is regarded as a doyen of constitutional law. The other panel members, including Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and Justice H.L. Dattu, a nominee of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, endorsed Rao’s nomination. Sushma was the lone dissenter on the four-member panel that will select the jurist.

Sushma’s choice was K. Parasaran, a former attorney-general. But the Prime Minister went ahead with Rao, prompting her to allege that when the country was appointing its first Lokpal after 40 years, the Centre disregarded the need to evolve “unanimity” on critical matters.

The Lok Sabha Opposition leader said she would petition President Pranab Mukherjee to intervene and “resolve” the stand-off. “The President can say it is not good to not attain unanimity on such decisions,” she told the media today.

At a meeting the Prime Minister convened last night, Sushma said she made it clear from the start she was against Rao because he was “identified too much with the Congress”.

“Let us have a neutral person of stature. I said in order to inspire people’s faith in the Lokpal, it is important that the selection process is clean, transparent and unanimous. This is the first step. If a Congress loyalist is appointed, there will be differences in the beginning. I suggested let us defer the meeting and try and achieve unanimity on another name,” she said.

To this end, she proposed expanding the shortlist of jurists who consisted of Rao, Parasaran and Fali S. Nariman and came up with the names of lawyers Harish Salve and Soli Sorabjee.

“But the Prime Minister said, no let us do it today. I then said let us settle for Parasaran. He was your government’s attorney-general, his son (Mohan Parasaran) is your solicitor-general. This much I know that the country will trust his independence.

“However, the Prime Minister said we respect Parasaran but let us go for Rao. I continued to argue that if you think of eminent jurists, one of the names you instantly recall is that of Parasaran. Why then are you insisting on Rao?” Sushma said.

At that point, she recounted the Prime Minister as saying the panel would record her dissent and recommend Rao’s name by a majority of three to one. “I demurred and said if we go by a majority view at this stage and not unanimity, we will probably adopt the same norm in appointing the Lokpal. It seems this government wants to make the Lokpal a body packed with its loyalists,” she alleged.

Central minister V. Narayanasamy defended Rao’s choice, contending that if unanimity was not possible, majority was the next step. “Sushma Swaraj’s charges are wild, unsubstantiated and unfortunate,” he said.

The BJP accused the Prime Minister of re-enacting the 2011 row over the appointment of P.J. Thomas as the central vigilance commissioner despite a pending graft charge. The Centre remained defiant in the face of Opposition anger. The Supreme Court struck down Thomas’s appointment.

Chat over tea

Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s jibe on Narendra Modi’s origin as a tea vendor has spurred the BJP to embark on a mass mobilisation programme, centred on the “tea” motif.

Sushma announced today that on February 12, the BJP would launch its “chai pe charcha” (chat over tea) programme that will see Modi and other BJP heavyweights interact with the “aam janata” (ordinary folk) at tea stalls simultaneously in a thousand places spread over 300 cities and towns.

The interchanges won’t simply be chitter-chatter. Sushma said they would consist of three parts: share, ask and suggest. “Share experiences, ask questions and throw up suggestions,” she added. She said each session will be themed and the opening one will be on governance.

Modi will be available at an Ahmedabad tea-vend on the appointed date and the appointed hour of 6pm and chat for nearly two hours.