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President Versus Chief Justice
by Dr. Rajinder Puri Bookmark and Share

Is UPA Government Legal?

Very recently in Hajipur, Bihar, a fifty-strong mob dragged a bed-ridden patient accused of murder from the hospital into the street and kicked the prostrate victim mercilessly leaving him half dead. A few cops stood by watching. TV showed the graphic footage. It was nauseating. Even jackals show more humanity than that cowardly mob. Did the incident repulse people? Apparently not. Next day another mob comprising a patient's relatives threatened violence against doctors in Bangalore which led to a strike by junior doctors.

Lynch scenes are becoming increasingly common. Mobs are dispensing their own version of justice.

President Pratibha Patil reacted. She ascribed lynching to the delayed justice dispensed by law courts. Inordinate delay is destroying public faith in the system of justice. Supreme Court Chief Justice Balakrishnan demurred. He blamed instead the collapse of governance which led people to take the law into their own hands. Both are right. Delayed justice has made a mockery of the judicial system. The collapse of governance has all but destroyed democracy. Who is to blame? For starters, both the President and the Chief Justice cannot escape a share of the responsibility. Just one pending issue shows that neither the President nor the Chief Justice has discharged responsibility adequately.

Consider the new Office of Profit Law. Almost two years ago, implementing the Office of Profit law, Jaya Bachchan was removed from the Rajya Sabha much to the glee of ruling MPs. Alas, sauce for the goose was also sauce for the gander! Applying the same law the Election Commission served notices to over 40 MPs and 200 MLAs asking them why they too should not be removed. Throwing honor to the winds out most honorable MPs enacted a new Office of Profit law to protect themselves. 

Former President Kalam deemed the amended law unconstitutional. He returned it to Parliament for reconsideration. Parliament sent back the unaltered law. Parliament accepted the President's objections and said it would appoint a Joint Parliamentary Committee to incorporate suitable amendments for addressing his concerns. Meanwhile it urged the President to sign the unaltered, unconstitutional Act to make it law. The President obliged. Thereby he violated his oath of office and became vulnerable to impeachment. But neither did MPs seek to impeach him, nor did he resign. Meanwhile an opposition MP petitioned the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the new Office of Profit law. More than a year has passed but the Supreme Court continues to proceed very tardily. 

Given the crucial importance of the case the delay is astonishing. If the law is struck down two results are possible. Depending on how the Election Commission responds to the depositions by MPs to the show cause notices, the UPA government could conceivably lose its majority. Alternately, it could survive without support of the Left MPs. Either way, it would signal a dramatic shift in national politics. During court hearings the government's counsel explaining the criteria for making the amended law said that changes were made to avoid by-elections of MPs. But this was the precise allegation of the petitioner! The petitioner's lawyer did not think it necessary to even rebut the government's rationale. But despite the crucial significance of the case, the Supreme Court instead of hearing it on a day to day basis continues to drag its feet. If the law had been struck down where would that have left President Kalam? We will never know because his term has already ended. What will be the fate of the UPA government? We may never know because Parliament's term is approaching its end and the SC has yet not delivered judgment. Have our honorable judges ever heard the saying that justice delayed is justice denied? How does Chief Justice Balakrishnan order his priorities and justify the delay?

As for the President, it is clear that if the legitimacy of the government is in doubt the responsibility of redressing that is solely the President's prerogative. It might be noted that the Prime Minister is under oath to abide by the Constitution. In the entire Indian Republic it is only the President who is under oath to preserve and protect the Constitution. There are two steps that are overdue for President Patil to take. First, she can enquire from the Supreme Court the status of the case on the Office of Profit law. It would be a clear signal that could speed up the wheels of justice. Secondly, she could ask Parliament for a progress report on the JPC appointed to address the concerns expressed by President Kalam against the current Office of Profit law.

Neither the President not the Chief Justice of India has acted with requisite urgency in this matter. Instead both are pondering why people are taking the law into their own hands. If they reflect, they will realize why.

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