At a time when our institutions are falling like ninepins, the latest clamour from senior ministers in the government and those sympathetic to them, as well as “neutral” observers is that the Opposition should give up the business of opposing entirely.
The fury of commentators on the Opposition parties’ attempt to move a motion to impeach the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is the latest example of this phenomenon. Those terming this as a move that will erode confidence of the general public in the judicial system, or more clearly, in the moral rectitude of the lordships in the Supreme Court need to remember that it was a group of four such eminences – Justice Chelameswar, Justice Gogoi, Justice Lokur and Justice Kurian Joseph – who felt compelled to speak to the press on 12th January 2018 against a CJI who they felt had been compromised and was not in a position to discharge his duties without fear or favour.
The slide in the trust that the general public reposes in the judiciary did not even begin with the historic ‘four judges press conference’. This slide would have begun right when people started realising that irrespective of the quality of the judges, a judicial system that is heavily loaded in favour of the rich and influential cannot be relied upon to do justice systematically. A popular or progressive judgment here or there cannot undo the frustration that ordinary people face with the judicial system. A Dr. Kafeel Khan, scapegoated in the Gorakhpur tragedy where 63 children died for lack of oxygen in a government hospital could not secure bail for eight months, while others in the administration, as well as the oxygen suppliers, seem to have evaded all accountability.
One important aspect is that the trusting public even accept that the courts cannot by themselves over-reach all the time if the administration and the prosecuting agencies (willingly, or unwittingly) fail in their duties. For the layperson, this gives a degree of protection to our lordships, and they can, as Judge Sundar Lal Tripathi did in the popular Bollywood film Jolly LLB, lament that even when the judge knows what is going on, their hands are tied unless fool-proof evidence is produced in the court. It is this firewall and as a consequence, public trust, that is shattered when doubts are raised on the CJI’s conduct. It is no doubt unfortunate, and degrades the judiciary, but to demand that opposing voices in politics, media and civil society do nothing in the face of such allegations is to bury one’s head in the sand.
If one were to go by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s recent views, the Opposition parties should not be demanding accountability of the government in Parliament either. On 13th March 2018, during the budget session that just passed, Lok Sabha Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, who ensured that two finance bills and 218 amendments were passed without debate in 30 minutes, was unable to admit a no-confidence motion against the government because she could not count the number of representations amidst the cacophony in the House.
The Lok Sabha and the Supreme Court of course join the Reserve Bank of India, in the growing list of institutions that have come under a cloud of doubt. Our institutions have been unable to withstand a government with authoritarian tendencies, and while they may have had internal weaknesses for so long, the miraculous ability of most institutions in our country has been one to muddle along, making incremental progress. In one fell swoop, some of our most important institutions have collapsed, with no recovery in sight.
Most of us today accept that these institutions are broken, but there is little consensus on what will fix them. Here is what will not fix them – not questioning their functioning. These institutions are supposed to check the excesses of the government of the day. In a highly politicised society as ours, while there will always be a role for non-political actors, it will take the political class to mount a strong opposition to the failure of institutions to discharge their duties.
Finally, it is crucial to remember that this discussion is framed in terms of the government and the opposition, irrespective of which political parties happen to occupy the respective seats on any given day. The call to ‘Save the Constitution’ is a timely one, because if by upholding the Constitution in its letter and spirit, we will not be favouring one political party or the other, but our democracy itself. The Opposition, by no means, should give up opposing. At the same time, one should not lower their guard when the political tables are turned. As we must know, eternal vigilance is the price of democracy.
This was first carried by DailyO