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|November 27, 2002||
T V R Shenoy
Three tragedies with one act
Sheafing through a stack of books recently I came across a Hercule Poirot mystery called Three-Act Tragedy. It struck me that the Justice Venkataswami affair could be described as 'Three Tragedies with one Act!' Quite appropriate too since three institutions have been damaged by a single decision -- the Union finance ministry, the judiciary, and the law officers.
But first, here is a summary of the crisis. Justice Venkataswami was the retired judge who was asked to head the commission of enquiry looking into the Tehelka affair. It turns out he was later asked to accept an office of profit by the Government of India. There was an outcry, and Justice Venkataswami resigned from both posts. How does this add up to a crisis of confidence in the three institutions named above?
Let us begin with the finance ministry. The proposal to create a new post, the 'Authority for Advance Ruling (Custom & Excise)', is nothing new. If memory serves me correctly, it was first mentioned in the Finance Bill of 1999. It was mooted as a one-man body, that individual to be a retired judge of the Supreme Court selected on the recommendation of the chief justice.
The Union finance ministry did not write to the chief justice before September 2001. (At least, there was no earlier letter, to the best of my knowledge.) And it took the then chief justice about five months to recommend a name. A couple of questions come to mind immediately.
First, just how necessary is such a post? Everybody in the finance ministry seems to have forgotten about it for months on end. Nor did the then chief justice think it of any great importance. (Understandably so. A chief justice has many grave matters on his plate, and can scarcely be bothered with issues that the finance ministry itself does not take very urgently.) Now that Justice Venkataswami has resigned, it will take at least another six months to find a man for the post. So, if we can go for a couple of years without such an authority, will the finance ministry care to convince the taxpayers why their money is being spent on such an office?
Second, how is it that neither the chief justice nor the finance ministry realised that there would be a public outcry when news of such an appointment became public? By May 2002 (when the post was offered to, and accepted by, Justice Venkataswami) the investigation into the Tehelka affair was in full swing. Surely, it was obvious that offering an office of profit in the Government of India would be seen as a blatant attempt at influencing the man in charge of the enquiry. Or was it as obvious as all that?
The matter seems to have slipped past several experts in administration and various legal pundits. How else can you explain that everyone missed the simple point that 'justice must not only be done, but it must be seen to be done?'
Some might argue that it takes a certain amount of political sense to realise the impact of one's actions on public opinion. I disagree; simple common sense should have sufficed. But be that as it may, there was a third body of people who would have seen the decision to appoint Justice Venkataswami, and who should have alerted the Union Cabinet to the political implications of any such act. I refer to the law officers -- the attorney-general, the solicitor-general, the Union law minister, and so on.
The law officers are appointed by the prime minister. If they are not necessarily all politicians, they are definitely expected to have highly developed political antennae. As far as I know, the law officers are not directly involved in the selection of the 'Authority for Advance Ruling (Custom & Excise)', but I find it hard to believe that all these gentlemen remained ignorant of what was about to happen. Didn't any of them feel that something was wrong?
I have no comments to make on Justice Venkataswami himself one way or the other. But his decisions have resulted in three things. First, there has been a loss of confidence in the finance ministry, the judiciary, and the law officers. Second, it has indefinitely delayed the investigation of the Tehelka affair. Third, it means that the vacancy in the finance ministry shall be left empty for several more months. Was it all really worth it, Justice Venkataswami?
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