Justice Markandey Katju’s mendacious allegations against his former colleagues, rather than provoking a sensible debate, has brought out just how dangerous the framework within which we think of judicial accountability is. It is pointless to speculate on Katju’s motives. But only the most obtuse observer will fail to recognise the political implications of what he has said. Politicians are salivating at the prospect of the judiciary committing hara kiri on its own legitimacy, thus creating grounds for greater control. After two decades, a legislative majority makes it possible that at the end of this road of delegitimisation will come, not greater accountability, but more political control. Katju has obliged at the moment when these tussles are getting particularly acute.
The judiciary’s damage is self-inflicted. This column has consistently argued that there is a serious crisis in the judiciary. Of late, the Supreme Court, in particular, has not distinguished itself. It has abdicated moral stewardship of the Constitution. The intellectual quality of judgments is widely perceived to be mediocre. Several judges have come under the ambit of all kinds of unseemly allegations. Cumulatively, this has led to two conclusions. First, the judicial usurpation that gave it almost exclusive powers over higher judicial appointments needs to be revisited; the executive’s more explicit role needs to be restored. Second, some mechanism needs to be devised to hold judges accountable. Hence the call for a national judicial appointments commission.
The exact design of this commission will be a matter for another occasion. But two dangerous tendencies in our current clamour for accountability need urgent attention. The first is the dangerous elevation of the Intelligence Bureau to the role of ultimate arbiter of character and competence. I cannot speak to particular cases. But the ease with which IB reports are used as an argument for or against candidates should give sleepless nights to those citizens who care about democracy. This is so for several reasons. It is ironic that in the discourse of accountability, we often invoke the single most unaccountable institution in Indian democracy: the Intelligence Bureau. This shadowy institution, whose own functioning is beyond all accountability, whose own norms are unclear and whose competence is doubtful, is now paraded as the final word on the suitability of candidates.
So let us put it gracelessly. Inputs from the IB can be important. But if they are accepted uncritically, if no one has the courage to ever overrule them, Indian democracy will be in great danger. How many times in the past have you heard that potentially worthy judges were scuttled by the IB? Katju may feel entitled to ask his brother judges why they went against what he claims were their own judgements. But it is utterly naive to think that an IB report cannot itself be politicised through omission and commission. The IB can easily create a fog of suspicion where none exists and scuttle good candidates; it can also choose to underemphasise what is already known. Since there is apparently deep IB scrutiny of candidates, what explains the fact that apparently so many bad apples made it through?
This point is important because, regardless of the structure of appointments, we rely on the IB and immobilise natural justice. In governments where the IB seems to leak more than ministers are allowed to speak, the possibility of IB subversion of candidates is great. Only in India can the demand for accountability involve a greater role for the even more unaccountable institution.
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The second issue that needs some sanity is transparency. Transparency is an attractive idea, but its contours need to be clearly defined. A bit of historical context is in order. One of the reasons we got a more mediocre judiciary, or in some aspects, civil service, is that we had this illusion that no one needs to exercise complicated judgement. The only way to appear to be fair and transparent is to come up with objective criteria. Seniority became the default criteria, albeit occasionally manipulated. One danger with certain demands for transparency is that it cannot happen without a counterproductive reductionism. The use of transparently accessible numerical criteria in academic selections is a good example of perverse incentives.
There is a clamour for selection committees to explain their appointments publicly. This is nonsense. There are good reasons not to malign reputations or cast doubt on the competence of rejected candidates. If they are serving judges, it might undermine their authority. It is possible to select one without suggesting others were unworthy; but public articulations make this difficult. Do you really want unelected judges or senior counsel to go with a sign on their head: “unworthy of the Supreme Court”? All institutions run on something called presumptive worthiness. Undermining this has long-term consequences for the institution.
Selection is a matter of judgement. It is not just a matter of objective qualifications but involves subtle points of judgement like institutional fit, temperament and so forth. These are all relevant. But the more selection committees have to explain themselves, the less likely it is that the relevant criteria will be taken into account, because these criteria are context specific. In India, there is also the misconception that the US process is transparent. It is transparent in the sense that their political system transparently accepts the political nature of judicial appointments. Public hearings are not about selecting the best candidate. Few would accuse the Supreme Court of the United States of achieving that distinction. I doubt we are ready to accept a politicised judiciary in that sense.
Notice another irony in l’affaire Katju. We want to have it both ways. On one hand, we say the judiciary should not have an exclusive say. Then, based on select leaks, we go after a former prime minister who merely asked a question he was within his rights to ask. Under our current system, what is wrong in the prime minister asking questions about a particular appointment? How can this government, which used IB leaks to buttress its stand in the Gopal Subramanium case, object to Manmohan Singh merely asking a question? This controversy is not about reform, it is has a political odour to it.
The Supreme Court seems to have recognised the rot. It has made a good start by making direct appointments to the bench. A critical mass of these appointments could transform its calibre and culture for the better, bringing in both competence and an outside perspective. The judiciary needs to repair its own deep disfigurement. But the wider politics of the judiciary is taking a dangerous turn. Indian democracy will rue the day it compromises on judicial independence in the name of accountability.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, and contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’