At a joint conference of chief ministers and chief justices, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke strongly in support of the independence of the judiciary, saying that the public elevates judges almost to the status of “divinity”. Since this faith is founded on appreciation for judicial independence, he suggested that the courts develop internal checks to resist the pressure of external “perceptions”. Indeed, judges do not exist in a vacuum, and they routinely face the challenge of delivering justice uninfluenced or unpressured by the ambient noise of our voluble public culture. But in an unexpected, and significant, aside, the PM also cautioned the judiciary against the machinations of “five-star activists”.
Such a broad-brush statement from the prime minister, at an august venue, touches off questions and anxieties. Who, precisely, was being referred to? Which prominent or consequential interventions of the higher judiciary, for instance, were urged by “five-star activists”? The 2G case that is a significant milestone in the fight against corruption? The removal of the obnoxious Section 66A from the statute books?
Strictures on the unacceptable treatment of Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai, that should have left the government red-faced but, by all accounts, did not? The question, in other words, can be: Is there an implication in the prime minister’s words that any of the important reformist and corrective actions of the higher judiciary have been piloted or influenced by “five-star activists”? By all accounts, the higher judiciary has sought to pursue a progressive agenda in such cases, and the government must be wary of taking a position that may in popular perception lock it in an antagonistic corner.
At the same meeting, the prime minister also drew attention to stumbling blocks in the machinery of justice. He questioned the need for tribunals that do not deliver, and which perhaps exist only as sinecures for retired judges. He called for better standards for the drafting of legislation in order to future-proof laws, and anticipated the emergence of fresh forms of litigation triggered by new activities like cyber crime. And his observation that the judiciary must regulate itself credibly to retain the faith of the public rings completely true.
But it also invites speculation — if the judiciary is not perceived to operate the right checks and balances, would that constitute an invitation for the executive to step in? Since the National Judicial Appointments Commission, which gives a greater role to the executive, is expected to replace the collegium system, the PM’s speech will be read in a fraught context. Whether perception or reality, that is inevitable.