Nearly three months ago, on 11 January, four of the senior-most judges of the Supreme Court gathered on the lawns of a brother judge’s residence to address the media in a press conference. They publicly expressed distress over the manner in which the Chief Justice was handling the administrative matters of the higher judiciary. They justified the unusual move of bringing out their angst “to the people” by saying that “there was a grave danger to democracy”.
Curiously, in this presser called at a very short notice, many non-journalists showed up, including some familiar faces of the Bar, who were known for their propensity to bait the government. Though the dissenting judges did not spell out specific grievances against the Chief Justice, at the prodding of one such bystander, Justice Ranjan Gogoi admitted that, the controversial judge Loya case might have been a trigger for the outburst.
Opinion was divided among the legal fraternity about this unprecedented development. Many eminent jurists questioned the need and propriety of bringing out the dirty linen of the bench in public. Family disputes are best resolved within the family, they said. However, a battery of high-profile lawyers – considered close to the Congress — came out with all guns blazing in support of the “mutiny”. Not surprisingly some politicians, adept at fishing in turbulent waters, jumped in. Most noticeably among them was Rahul Gandhi, who clearly exceeded his brief by opining that the senior most judge after the CJI (that is Justice Chelameswar) should hear the judge Loya matter.
At that time, this writer had stuck his neck out to suggest that this could be part of a larger game plan to impeach the Chief Justice. Call it a conjecture or a hypothesis, it was based on a distinct impression of the Opposition trying to derail many of the constitutional institutions and government agencies. The Supreme Court, Election Commission, Army, tax authorities, RBI, investigation agencies - including the ED, CBI, IB and even R&AW, came on the anti-BJP lobby’s line of fire.
However, much to the relief of many, the crisis appeared to blow over with some deft handling by the venerable Attorney General and, perhaps, a few other good jurist Samaritans working offline. The peeved judges got back to work and the residual rancour, if any, went back into the chamber closets.
What continued though was the unrestrained belligerence of some stalwarts of the Bar in the CJI’s court while appearing in some sensitive cases. These senior counsels made little effort to hide their disrespect for the CJI, often descending into effrontery. This was particularly on display in the Loya case both inside and outside the courtrooms. In return, it invited some sharp responses and reprimands from the CJI and some other judges. This only aggravated the tension between the Bar and the bench.
After being on the back foot for a while, the government got a chance to up the ante after the elections in three northeastern states and signs of green shoots on the economic front. However, the BJP’s relief was short-lived, with reverses in the Lok Sabha bypolls in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Although these were relatively minor setbacks, they constituted a major jolt in the political perception game.
To the credit of the back room strategists in the Opposition — whether they are political war veterans or some election consultants, as many suspect — they were quick to seize the moment and launch a fresh multi-pronged offensive on the government. Chandrababu Naidu’s withdrawal from the NDA came as a shot in the arm, which was quickly followed by the “no confidence motion” moved in the Parliament by several parties in choreographed sequence. That the Opposition allowed the Finance Bill to be passed without debate and disrupted Parliament with a new cause each day, showing little urgency to even have discussions on the no-confidence motion made their intention clear — to waylay governance, reducing the NDA to a lame-duck administration in its final year.
Meanwhile, efforts at cobbling up a “federal front” on the one hand and a “Coromandel coalition” among Chandrababu Naidu, Jagan Mohan Reddy and K Chandrashekar Rao on the other, have gained momentum. It is still early days to predict how these will pan out and a lot will depend on the outcome of the Karnataka elections. Rahul Gandhi is going around the country as a loose cannon and getting cheekier by the day on social media. In fact, the first sign that there might be some new move against the CJI came from him a few days ago when he alleged that the judiciary’s independence is being threatened, referring to the outburst of the four judges. Through this statement, he appeared to question the professional integrity of the CJI.
Therefore, the signature drive for an impeachment motion may not have come as a shock. That the motive is political is for all to see. Prashant Bhushan bared the cards by meeting Mamata Banerjee and seeking her support. If the Opposition manages to collect 50 MPs' signatures in the Rajya Sabha or 100 MPs' signatures in the Lok Sabha, it would be difficult for the Chairman or the Speaker not to admit the motion. It is quite possible that, just like the no-confidence motion, the Opposition may not be in a great hurry to discuss the impeachment plea in the House. But, the fact that it is pending before Parliament is enough to put huge moral pressure on the CJI, which in turn is bound to cast its shadow over some very important cases that are before the Supreme Court — notably Aadhaar, Babri Masjid and, of course, judge Loya.
Some other CJI may have recused himself or herself from the controversial cases or even considered stepping down. However, Justice Dipak Misra is no pushover.
However, what is happening is entirely regrettable for the judiciary and the country at large. One can understand that the Opposition, in particular the Congress, is impatient to see the Narendra Modi dispensation go. But their action betrays a degree of desperation, which can only be explained by some latent anxiety at not knowing the next move of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Even if the Opposition succeeds in stopping the Modi-Shah combine in its tracks, they would end up causing irreparable damage to a fundamental pillar of democracy. The effects of this will be felt by generations to come.
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Updated Date: Mar 29, 2018 18:33:59 IST