Updated: January 13, 2015 12:00:13 am
The Supreme Court is the custodian of the Constitution of India and the higher judiciary has played a crucial role in supporting the separation of powers, an important feature of our democracy. Among the countervailing forces of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, the last has protected its freedom most jealously and zealously, and urged the other two to stay in line. Besides, with progressive judgments on a diversity of issues, the high courts and the Supreme Court have shouldered the work of the other two pillars of democracy when they flagged in their efforts.
When the legislature has failed to frame laws in keeping with public needs, the courts have wanted to know the reason. When the government has failed to act on those laws, the courts have reminded it of its duty. Indeed, the courts have been custodians even of the freedoms which have created a flourishing press in India. Perhaps no other democracy has owed so much to its judiciary, which has served as a compass in choppy political seas, reminding its leadership of who they are, laying down lines that cannot be crossed and deepening the meaning of democracy itself.
And so, when the chief justice of India publicly endorses the prime minister, it causes some unease. Justice H.L. Dattu has declared Narendra Modi to be “a good leader, good human being and a man with foresight and one who wants good governance”. Perhaps these observations were made in good faith, to be read as one man’s private opinion. It would have been better if it had been kept that way. The CJI went on to add that relations between the judiciary and the government have been cordial during his tenure, which continues until December.
But Justice Dattu’s remarks come at a time when there is debate — and disquiet — about the proposed National Judicial Appointments Commission, which would wrest the right to appoint judges from the judiciary. The move could be challenged in the Supreme Court, which he presides over. In the courtroom, the CJI has been just, and been seen to be just. His judgment in the course of the 2G trials, for instance, had laid down the precedent that bail is a right and withholding it the exception. With all respect, his statement, made in a forum where it was bound to be reported, only revalidates the old principle that judges should communicate only through their judgments.
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