No one repairs a roof when the sun is shining, nor do we install flood defences during the summer. Serious rebuilding is only done during a storm. In politics, this is truer than in real life. Here is a government whose ‘honeymoon’ lasted less than the time it takes for an ice-cream cone to melt under a blazing Indian summer. It has faced criticism on inflation, the judiciary, Indians stranded abroad, minor misdemeanours by junior ministers and the Budget, which has been all over the newspapers. In other words, life is normal for a party newly in power.
There will be great temptation to become defensive or fight each crisis as it comes; drifting, but not swimming. Yet, there is a way to convert a crisis into an opportunity for initiating long-term reform. The one such challenge is presented by the controversy with the judiciary. Seize the hour to rethink the entire system.
Judicial reform has been long overdue. The Indian judiciary is short on staff, operates in outdated buildings, has a large backlog of around 3 crore cases. At the top, there has been a debate for sometime now, with a Bill pending before Parliament on whether to reform the collegium system of appointing judges. Any attempt to reform the judiciary by the executive runs into the accusation of compromising the independence of the judiciary. But the collegium system was not there at the beginning of the Republic and only evolved as a response to doubts about the executive after Indira Gandhi strangled the judiciary. The situation is now different, with judges being less accountable than ever before. The case for reform can thus be reopened at the very beginning of the new government whose large mandate is fresh in the minds of the people.
Instead of thinking about just the top appointments, we should think of overhauling the system to make it more people-friendly. Law’s delays only help the crooked and deny justice to the deserving. Thus the first reform must be to vastly expand the capacity of the judicial system to deliver quick results. This will require a roadmap to increase the number of qualified magistrates/judges by a factor of five. Not all the officials need be Western-style lawyers. They can be people who can arbitrate in disputes, the innovative Janata Adalats can be expanded. It was interesting to see how many people misread the Supreme Court’s judgment about fatwas. The point was not that all Shariat court decisions are invalid but that, if continued…