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Taken to task

A judiciary that supervises the Centre is welcome at this time
Supreme Court of India
Supreme Court of India

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray   |   Published 15.05.21, 12:07 AM

Friends in London warned against moving from a cooling frying pan to a raging fire. But we were tired of being kept dangling at Air India’s mercy. The national carrier resembles the national government: its duty to passengers begins and ends with taking their money. Disdainful of the public, Air India did not even bother to take telephone calls or answer emails.

When I lived in Singapore and regularly visited my son at school in England, Air India’s local manager apologized that he could not guarantee a seat beyond Delhi on the Singapore-Delhi-London flight. Seats to London, he explained, were up for grabs for India’s high and mighty who ignored prior confirmed bookings. This cavalier attitude to those who provide the airline’s rice and curry is replicated in the government’s disregard of voters at a time of national pain and panic. But things are changing, thanks partly to the pressure of public interest litigation. The Supreme Court’s suo motu decision to examine how the pandemic is handled holds the promise of long overdue judicial superintendence although the petulant (but superficially deferential) tone of the Centre’s response warns this intervention is resented and may be resisted.


Stranded in London for six months, I did not follow the election campaign in detail. But certain curious aspects were unmistakable. Clearly, no Election Commission would have prolonged public agony through eight-phase voting without political sanction. It stood to reason, too, that the sanctioning authorities expected Bengal’s suffering to swing the polls in their favour. Worse than Nero fiddling while Rome burned, this exploitation of death and disaster reached manic heights when the Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista extravaganza was reportedly cleared to go full steam ahead. Meanwhile, oxygen cylinders were drying up, patients gasped for breath on pavements because there were no hospital beds and India begged the world for help.

Amid the controversy in England over the nearly $2,80,000 that Boris Johnson allegedly spent on refurbishing his Downing Street flat, I was astonished to learn that the prime minister of an impoverished Third World country had ordered priority construction of his palatial official residence in the Central Vista fantasy. This keeping up with the global Joneses (Donald Trump spent $1.75 million updating the White House) reminded me of the sprawling villa by Lake Geneva that belonged to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, bankrupt and starving Zaire’s ruler for 32 years. He died in exile in Morocco.

The raging pandemic ended the Kumbh Mela but only after the Uttarakhand chief minister’s head had rolled. He had had the nerve to urge Hindutva warriors to be content with a mini-Kumbh. ‘All are welcome to the Maha Kumbh!’ boomed his successor. The sadhus were appeased but the coronavirus soared and many of them died. In Bengal, the faithful were squabbling over who should sit (cross-legged?) in Mamata Banerjee’s not-vacant chair — a pop star, a cricketer or an elite outsider who had put away single malt Scotch and rare beef steaks for the duration.

Narendra Modi’s appearance was the first shock on my return after a nine-hour wait and Covid-19 tests in Bangalore. Televised election programmes might have been village tamashas with “Didi O Didi!” bellowed obscenely from the depths of flowing hair and beard. Some speculated that a Rabindranath Tagore lookalike was expected to impress voters. Others joked that being obsessed with Didi’s Muslim support, Modi sought to outdo mullahs and imams in fuzzy-wuzzyness. It was also suggested he was caught between two hirsute Hindu heroes, Vashishtha and Valmiki. Vashishtha’s ashram being near Guwahati, he must be thanked for Assam but larger-than-life Valmiki was Rama’s contemporary.

I won’t pretend to have expected the Trinamul Congress’s spectacular achievement although I am very glad it won. However, Mamata Banerjee’s defeat in Nandigram indicates the victory was of the party rather than the leader, reversing the old Congress position when Indira Gandhi feared an unpopular party might drag her down. Having killed the Nano and Salim projects without innovating anything to satisfy young Bengalis whom the Left Front’s reforms left with ambition and ability but no means of fulfilling them, the chief minister needed a unifying platform. A fierce sense of being Bengali provided it. Hindu or Muslim, Bengal rejects outsiders, seeing their local henchmen as opportunists and time-servers.

A judiciary that supervises the Centre is a welcome development. It should have happened at the end of March last year when a stampede of internal migrants — a staggering total of 139 million according to some — raised vital questions about health, employment, accommodation, transport and exploitation. The catastrophic second surge, aggravated by neglect, complacency and events like the Kumbh Mela and elections, has prompted the judiciary to hold governments to account. At last count, 11 high courts had pulled up state governments and the Centre.

This might not have been essential if India had a forceful Opposition to balance Central power, and if constructive interventions (like letters to Narendra Modi from Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi) were not treated with studied contempt. Sadly, this is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s style: P.V. Narasimha Rao and Inder Kumar Gujral lamented that even Atal Bihari Vajpayee — no yokel but a benign and civilized man — did not reciprocate the courtesy he had received from them. The government is even more dismissive of a media that often seem too anxious to live up to L.K. Advani’s famous taunt to take on Opposition functions like some American newspapers.

The absence of a ready-made Western model gives India the unparalleled opportunity of forging its own checks and balances out of institutions we inherited and made our own. I recall the Duke of York’s throwaway remark at a Calcutta reception that the British left India a bureaucracy that Indians developed. That applies to many other institutions and attributes that we take for granted: not even the Central Vista’s grandeur will convince anyone that India’s parliamentary practices derive from 6th century BCE Vaishali and not Westminster. Or that some wizard of a Hindu plastic surgeon fixed Ganesha’s head, that Karna was a test tube baby, or that our ancient sages were experts at stem cell technology and artificial insemination. Ignorant absurdities encourage innocents to look to cow dung and urine to cure the coronavirus. No wonder doctors record a huge spurt in mucormycosis, the aggressive “black fungus”, among Covid-19 patients.

Our courts are far from perfect. Not everybody has access to them. Not all judges are above self-interest. Nor are they all apolitical. Yet, on the whole, judicial oversight may be preferable to that of an upper House which can become an instrument of the majority group. Recent experience shows judges are no respecter of persons. They are tireless in their efforts. Many high courts are hearing Covid-19 petitions. Many are responsible for incisive and reassuring interventions and criticism of the executive. The Supreme Court, which directed the Centre to submit a national Covid-19 plan and has questioned the disparity in vaccine prices, has promised not to curb high courts. The judiciary wants to play a complementary role because it cannot be a silent spectator to what it calls a “national calamity”.

The Centre has indicated its dislike of an independent judiciary’s interventionist functions. It has already shown its claws by not divulging some details the court had asked for. A face-off would defeat the very purpose of judicious superintendence. India’s governance needs consultation, not confrontation. A closed system in which the prime minister never dares face the media, Parliament does not come to grips with crucial national crises, bureaucrats recall Nipper, the terrier in old gramophone ads, and television anchors are caricatures of official spokesmen can never serve the public interest. Such aberrations reduce the government to another moribund Air India existing to service only a privileged circle of insiders.

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