Every citizen, economist, institution and organisational body has an opinion on the demonetisation implemented recently by the centre. Suddenly, the “common man” has become the centre of attention of political parties; buckets of tears are daily shed bemoaning his travails. Analysis covering the entire spectrum of possibility and probability has occupied public space. While some of these analytical musings may be partially true, surely the entire spectrum cannot be valid. Indeed, the Congress, which had control of the economy for over 60 years, brought the country to its knees and was primarily responsible for the hardship of the populace. Yet, it has shed the most tears for the “common man”, who was treated with great disdain hitherto. The other loose cannon, Arvind Kejriwal, has gone to the extent of predicting “riots” in the streets. It is in this context that one wonders with trepidation whether the matter will be taken up for “consideration” by the apex court now, and if so, the further statements and announcements relating to the same that will follow.
The simple fact is, the apex court of India is held in the highest possible esteem by the thinking Indian. It is seen as the final temple of justice, the defender of the interests of the common person, the guardian of the Constitution, the protector of democracy. In a country which is slowly demolishing all its icons, it is a pantheon worthy of worship by the ordinary citizen. Time and again, the apex court has stood up to defend the citizen against the state. Of our governance triumvirate, the legislature has proven itself to be inconsequential, insignificant and effectively non-existent over the past seven decades — many will agree that it is a dummy organisation, manipulated by clever politicians, for their own ends. The executive has performed reasonably well. However, the failure to uplift the lives of million of people over seven decades, the miserable hand to mouth existence of a large majority of citizens, linked with completely unacceptable education and public health standards, and a totally corrupt economy, are all legacies created by the executive. The untrammelled predatory instincts of the political class has converted the democratic process to one deserving contempt. Public service is the last thing in the mind of the average politician, whose only aim is to win elections, make promises which he has no intention of keeping, amass wealth for the next 10 generations and return to contest elections again. It is in this depressing milieu that one looks at the standing of the apex court today — it is the last bastion housing the public’s hope.
It is not that the judiciary is unsullied, with a shining reputation. The judicial system is often unable to deliver justice to the common citizen; it is expensive, dilatory and highly corrupt in the lower levels. Many high courts don’t have a savoury reputation. Each civil and revenue case could take decades to reach a conclusion. A judicial arbitration process usually spans decades. No major reforms have been taken to deal with interminable adjournments; rampant, dilatory interlocutory orders; harnessing technology for recording evidence and speeding up the trial process; humane treatment of undertrials; and flagrant abuse of the system by rapacious lawyers. While the law is the same for all, the popular perception is that legal procedures are “elitist” — an expensive lawyer can do wonders for you. While part of the above is possibly exaggerated, one cannot deny basic facts. The system needs urgent and serious reforms — and one has not seen major steps towards this.
No doubt there has been criticism in the past about judicial “overreach”. However, no one has questioned the intention of the apex court as a defender of the common citizen’s interest. By its very nature, the court is an adjudicatory body, ruling on competing points of view to reach a conclusion on whether a particular action is in conformity with the Constitution. There is no standing machinery to have sustained periodical examination of all aspects of a relevant major issue, weighing economic and social costs and benefits over time, so that a viable and optimal action plan can be evolved. Thus, the periodic staccato adhoc interventions, on subjects like pollution or environment, are to be seen as directing the executive to take appropriate and viable action and highlighting a major issue, rather than unfolding policy in the economic, social or political spheres, which are in the province of other agencies. Indeed, the abject failures of the legislative and executive wings have given the apex court the room to enter into what is primarily the executive’s space. It should not become a habit to enter every conceivable area affecting the populace, and with casual, random observations and directions.
The Supreme Court is too sacred, too precious a resource that Indians have. It needs to be preserved with utmost reverence, attention and discipline. Irrespective of the merits of the demonetisation debate, whether one agrees with it or not, it is surely a subject in the executive’s province. One would hope that these political and economic processes will play out on their own in this regard, without the apex court sullying itself by entering the fray.