Former finance minister P. Chidambaram after leaving the CBI court in New Delhi on August 22, 2019. Credit: PTI/Ravi Choudhury
It was not all that long ago when four seniormost judges of the Supreme Court had held a famous press event in New Delhi because they felt strongly that they needed to express their sense of anguish over the judiciary’s failure or unwillingness to provide a corrective to an overweening political executive.
What those four judges were asserting was an ancient principle of jurisprudence: a judge need not bend herself to the political expediency of the day. An independent judiciary’s foremost responsibility is to clamp down on any outbreak of political, corporate, executive or even judicial waywardness.
That responsibility needs to be underlined in the context of the P. Chidambaram case. Medieval vendettas are being dressed up as pursuit of absolute virtues. A vindictive political executive may feel it is entitled to its roughness, but a combination of action and inaction in the Delhi high court and then the Supreme Court last Tuesday has ended up diminishing us all.
The scene of CBI officials choosing to scale the gate of a former home and finance minister of India’s residence should be a reminder that, inch by inch, we are being pushed into a front-rank banana republic.
What is disquieting is that outside the court, the Chief Justice of India has been most eloquent, warning the nation of ‘dark forces’ lurking around the corner; but, this appreciation of dangers somehow does not seem to get reflected in the apex court’s judicial exertions.
The democratic forces often find themselves baffled and mystified by the judiciary’s unwillingness to live up to its primary constitutional obligation to speed-break a rogue executive.
There is a dangerous lop-sidedness in the distribution of power in our polity. This lopsidedness has produced its own ecosystem; the drum-beaters with their new songs in praise of the rulers, new apologists with their specious arguments in defence of legal trickery and constitutional roughness.
On the other hand, the principal opposition party is mired in its internal feudalism; and, consequently it is not able to become the fulcrum for democratic resistance and dissent. The ruling party, dominant and domineering, holds all the aces in its hand.
Admittedly, the judiciary is not responsible for this extreme imbalance. But the judiciary does need to be wary of the new tautology at work. The self-justifying argument is simple as it is brazen: because we live in the age of strong and decisive leaders, a strong leader and his preferred understanding of the “will of the people” should be acknowledged and respected.
The sub-text of this tautology is that all other institutions and voices in the country should fall in line with the ‘strong leader’ and his whims. Whatever the ‘decisive’ leader decides is ipso facto deemed to be not just legal but also overflowing with wisdom and statesmanship. Some kind of infallibility is being claimed for the leader. And even if democracy produces palpably “non-democratic dividends,” so be it.
Strong and mature democracies do not change their basic constitutional values and republican virtues with a change of government. Democratic institutions ensure a basic commitment to the practices and protocol of reasonableness and check abuse of procedures. The greatest accomplishment of the Nehruvian era was that we collectively avoided the temptation of a rogue state.
The Chidambaram case is unsettling because it seems our newly empowered rulers are getting tired of Nehruvian restraint and temperance.
Whatever message the “decisive” leader may have wanted to send to the domestic audience, the ugliness that attended Chidambaram’s molestation would not go unnoticed, at home and abroad. The CBI court was constrained on Thursday to direct the agency’s officials to ensure that Chidambaram’s “personal dignity is not violated in any manner”.
We are already reaping the harvest of “decisive” leadership in the management of the economy. Populist demagoguery may sway millions – as it did in the monumental disaster called demonetisation; it cannot promise economic rationality. The decisive leadership overload has already alienated the entrepreneurial class and the business community.
In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections, Delhi was agog with stories of a shakedown of corporate houses. It is too much to expect those who got extorted to suddenly start trusting and respecting the government just because it can commandeer a 300-plus tally in the Lok Sabha. The businessman has no reason to be impressed with the ruling party’s moral posturing, either. He has refused to be intimidated.
And, suddenly there is panic, notwithstanding the availability of that ubiquitous decisive leader. Even the hosanna singers at the Niti Aayog are publicly acknowledging the trust deficit. Obviously the words of appeasement from the Red Fort were not enough for the industry.
A leading corporate voice, Anil Agarwal of the Vedanta Group, kicked the can down to the Prime Minister’s door. He was reported, in the Economic Times, to have observed: “I think every day people are waiting. Like people wait for rain. In Bihar, we used to keep looking at the sky, our neck would start aching. But we were absolutely sure that it would rain. Similarly, the whole country is waiting for the prime minister to do something. And everybody is hopeful that he is going to do something to help trade and industry.”
What a delightful exercise in massaging the great leader’s ego while delivering a kind of ultimatum.
And, lo and behold, on Friday evening, the government got off its moral high horse. The finance minister found herself constrained to roll back the proposed criminalisation of CSR violations, besides announcing a set of new measures, all designed to placate a deeply alienated business community. A plain and simple surrender to economic common sense and policy reasonableness.
There is one simple message in all this: rulers need to be rescued from their own follies, even if we are told that this is the age of strong and decisive leaders. That is why democracies have sturdy institutional arrangements, including a free and independent judiciary, to ensure fair play and level playing field. It’s time to remind ourselves that we are still a constitutional republic and not a one-man show.The Wire