Recently retired chief justice of India, P. Sathasivam, is poised to become the first CJI to hold the office of governor. To be sure, the appointment is within the norms prescribed by the Constitution for the selection of governors. But is it appropriate on the part of a former CJI to take this office, is the question. Would it not undermine the dignity of the office he held previously? There is a sobering context for these questions. The office of the governor has been under a persisting — and lengthening — shadow.
Successive governments, including the NDA and UPA, have reduced this important constitutional office to a sinecure and resting place for loyal and retired politicians — and politicians whom their parties wish to retire — apart from docile bureaucrats. The few exceptions, who belie the generally dismal trend, have not been able to salvage the prestige of the office. It is against this backdrop that Justice Sathasivam has been appointed as Kerala governor. The opposition has been quick to suggest that this is a case of a reward being doled out for past service. For the sake of his reputation and record, and to maintain the dignity of the office he once held, Justice Sathasivam would do well to reconsider his decision to accept the government’s invitation.
These are not the best of times for the judiciary. Allegations of corruption among judges have been made from within the fraternity and doubts cast on the impartiality of judgments. With the judiciary on the backfoot, a newly emboldened executive is seen to be stepping up the pressure. The National Judicial Appointments Commission Bill proposes changes in the norms and processes of the appointment of judges and apprehensions have been expressed that these could tilt the delicate balance of power between the executive and the judiciary in favour of the former. In this precarious moment, both the government and the judiciary must avoid any step that may be construed as compromising the independence of the judiciary, so crucial to the basic structure of the Constitution. At least one former CJI has come on record to say that, had it come his way, he would have refused the government’s offer of a gubernatorial post.
To make way for its loyalists, the NDA nudged and transferred out incumbent governors. Its own choices have included former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh, indicted by the Supreme Court in the Babri Masjid demolition case. Justice Sathasivam must think again whether he wants to be a part of this dispiriting story of institutional corrosion.