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The govt has a new foe
August 25, 2005
The BJP, as all unbiased observers would agree, is doing a terrible job of playing the part of the Opposition. (Please admire my talent for understatement!) The Treasury benches are obviously feeling just a wee bit lonely; to make up for the absence of the BJP the United Progressive Alliance has chosen a new foe -- the Supreme Court no less.
Take a look at the issues where the UPA and their Lordships on the apex court have found themselves at loggerheads in just this calendar year. The Supreme Court made a few well-deserved remarks on the behaviour of Governor Syed Sibtey Razi and the creative arithmetic he used in Jharkhand.
With an eye on the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha election -- whenever they are held -- the Congress government tried to shut the books on the Taj Corridor Case involving Mayawati; the Supreme Court has opened the doors to a fresh investigation.
Finally, with Tamil Nadu's assembly polls around the corridor, the Government of India decided to spike a Supreme Court judgement on reservation in private, meaning unaided, colleges. This led to an exasperated Chief Justice bitterly proclaiming that if the Government of India should shut the courts altogether given that it displayed such little respect.
SC flays Centre over private college issue
I think it was the nineteenth-century political theorist Walter Bagehot who described the prime minister as the buckle which joins the executive and the legislature. If so, would it be fair to say that the link between the executive and the judicial wings of the state is the attorney-general? (And the Union law minister too of course.)
The spotlight falls again on poor Milon Banerjee. How many Indians realise that the post of attorney-general is one of the few mentioned in the Constitution itself? He is even entitled, on certain specific occasions, to address the Lok Sabha even if he is not himself a member of the house.
In Britain, whose system we follow, the attorney-general is a full-blown member of the Cabinet. (There is no 'law minister' in Westminster.) We must wonder whether Milon Banerjee is the best man for this sensitive job.
Banerjee certainly played a curious role in the Taj Corridor Case. He informed the Supreme Court that there was really no case to make, and the government was therefore not pursuing it any longer. This is a crucial point; please note that it was not the Central Bureau of Investigation which said so but the official spokesman of the Government of India.
How did Milon Banerjee come to this view in the face of what seemed to be a wealth of proof? Quite obviously, the Central Vigilance Commissioner reached quite a different result, and the Supreme Court seems inclined to agree with the latter.
Lok Sabha members react sharply to SC outburst
(I would like to remind everyone at this point that in India a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Given the glee with which her enemies have been quick to condemn Bahujan Samaj Party boss Mayawati, this reminder seems called for. I am not saying she is innocent, merely urging everyone to keep an open mind until all the evidence has been offered in court. Let the politician who has never sinned cast the first abuse!)
There may be some attorneys who choose to go their own merry way without bothering to consult a client; I refuse to believe that the attorney-general of India is one of them and that he would have kept the Government of India in the dark. So it is up to Milon Banerjee to tell us why he said what he did. On whose advice did he tell the Supreme Court that the Government of India saw no reason to follow the case against Mayawati?
Again, was it not the attorney-general's duty to explain the full ramifications of the Supreme Court's order on reservation to his clients in the Government of India? The apex court did not strike down reservation per se, merely its application through government interference in unaided institutions. It also opened the door for Parliament to lay down laws on the subject, something that has not been done so far. Yet all we heard was politicians talking about 'social justice' (one of those delightfully vague phrases that may be used to justify almost anything).
This, incidentally, led to another revealing incident. When Union Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh organised an all-party meeting to discuss legislation his colleague, the Union law minister, was conspicuous by his absence. Traditionally, all legislation is checked by the law ministry before it is laid before the Cabinet, leave alone opened for discussion with other parties.
This is not the first time that H R Bhardwaj has found himself at odds with his colleagues -- he was forced to preach constitutional doctrine to vocal ministers after the Jharkhand fiasco earlier this year. India can survive the internal squabbles of the United Progressive Alliance. But I hope Sonia Gandhi, the prime minister and some of the other more responsible people are aware of the dangers of dragging the Supreme Court into the mud.
Apart from the three armed services, the judiciary is the only wing of the state to command universal respect. Is it worth destroying the reputation of that institution merely to score a few political points? If Milon Banerjee and H R Bhardwaj fail to point this out to the Union Cabinet then they are unworthy of their jobs.