And justice for all

By: Imran Qureshi

Politicians may be fuming. But the conviction of Jayalalithaa by a trial court judge has reiterated the strength of the Indian Constitution and the judicial system that guards it

For quite some years now, the Indian judiciary has been looked upon as the only source of strength to address the woes of the common man. If the government failed on several fronts – there were quite a few in the previous regime of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) – assistance came from the courts. The issues before the courts did not really matter. It was the result that many looked at. The judiciary gave some kind of hope.

Yet, it was always felt that justice was not easily forthcoming to the aggrieved. The general opinion was that things were just about alright. Some succeeded, some didn’t. But, last week, a trial court judge went into annals of judicial history by pronouncing a verdict that left many rubbing their eyes in amazement. He simply packed off one of the most powerful politicians in the country to the central prison, right opposite the improvised court set up because the A-1 or accused number one enjoyed a top class security tag called ‘Z’ plus.

Judge John Michael D’Cunha’s verdict made film actor-turned-politician, Jayaram Jayalalithaa, dizzy and when medical attention was sought in a hospital, he simply told the duty doctor to attend to her immediately. His actions could have been termed as harsh but he was just following the rule book, which he adhered to strictly while delivering the verdict in a case that is truly historic. It was a case of corruption that went on for a record 18 years which, ultimately, made Jayalalithaa lose the chief ministership of the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Jayalalithaa, who ruled her state with an ‘iron hand’, just like the assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi administered India, certainly did not expect this when she arrived to hear the judgment. She had not even carried her medicines for diabetes and a heart ailment. Such was her confidence level when she drove in a 21 vehicle security convoy to hear the judgment. The judge upheld the prosecution’s contention that her assets of R530mn (out of the R666mn in the charge sheet) were grossly disproportionate to her known sources of income. And, so the record fine of R1bn (RO6.2mn approx) and a four years of simple imprisonment was ordered.

The political implications of Jayalalithaa’s conviction are bound to be felt for quite some time to come in Tamil Nadu. But, the spotlight has clearly fallen on the remarkable judicial system that is followed in the country. Despite all its faults, including the law being sucked dry in facilitating an estimated 373 adjournments in this case, the verdict proved that the legal system was strong enough for a conscientious judge to give confidence to a common man. A similar booster dose had come last year when two former chief ministers of the eastern state of Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Jaganath Mishra, were convicted and sent to jail. They, too, lost their membership of the legislative bodies they were in. But, this case proved something more. That none is above the law. Not even a sitting chief minister.

There is no doubt that the vigilance among the people has risen about the performance of the judiciary as well. It is not anymore confined to the political class being questioned. And, the best part of the story of the Indian judiciary is that trial court judges are delivering verdicts that have made the political class, particularly, wear prison clothes. There are quite a few like D’Cunha who have proved that they are upright judicial officers. And, in a number of cases, the superior judiciary has also upheld their decisions. Such judges have, clearly, drawn strength from the Constitution. It means that the courts have enormous power and public awareness has only made it appear active and more visible.

The latest case has, again, proved that the Indian judiciary is independent. And, it is independent of the Executive. It is worth recalling an interesting interaction between a then Prime Minister and then Chief Justice of India. The Prime Minister was the scholarly P V Narasimha Rao and the Chief Justice was Justice M N Venkatachalaiah. Rao had once told Justice Venkatachalaiah that the judiciary and the executive should have a ‘good relationship’. The very alert Venkatachalaiah’s response was a cryptic: “Not a good relationship but a proper relationship.”

In recent times, however, there have been instances where the value system of an individual has compromised that ‘proper relationship’. The former chief justice of India, Justice Sathasivam, readily agreed to become the Governor of the southern state of Kerala just four months after retiring from his post. It is in this context that the decision of Justice R M Lodha, who succeeded Justice Sathasivam as Chief Justice of India, is laudable. Justice Lodha had this to say on his retirement day, the very day that Jayalalithaa was convicted. Judges should have a cooling period of two years, in the least, before taking up any other assignment so that their decisions are not influenced by the executive.

If the relationship between the judiciary and the executive was good, it was very unlikely that the Supreme Court would have struck down a discriminatory clause in the Peoples Representation Act last year. It was a clause that ensured convicted people like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Jayalalithaa lost their elected posts (and thereby the chief ministership in the case of Jayalalithaa). The then UPA government had attempted to amend the law to provide a leeway for the political class. Strange as it may sound, in retrospect, it was the Rahul Gandhi’s brashness that ensured the government’s decision was upturned and the Supreme Court’s decision was implemented in toto. That was people’s power and the mood in the country then. Maybe, Jayalalithaa would not have lost her post if her legal team had not sought so many adjournments.

Rockstar Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly proved that he can make people eat out of his hands. His performance at Madison Square Gardens will become part of folklore with his performance already being described by all and sundry as that of a Rockstar. For the home audience, with the electronic media coverage going overboard, his address may have appeared repetitive. There were quite a few interesting messages that he sent across to his hosts, which included several Congressmen and Senators who saw for themselves the energy that the master communicator creates when he addresses those who supported him through his election campaign.

His promise of visa on arrival to US citizens and life long visa with PIO card, however, has raised many an eyebrow among those in the security establishment. The image of David Coleman Headley, the scout before the Mumbai terror attack, would haunt anyone in the establishment. The American lawmakers are certain to have received the message that this was his way of responding to the denial of visa to him by their administration after the 2002. Clearly, this is one issue that the government would possibly think over more closely.

But, in concrete terms, there still a lot to flow out of this visit of Modi to the US. His meeting with President Barrack Obama has already been described as a get-to-know-each other dinner meeting where Modi only sipped water as it is his fifth day of fasting during nine-day Navratri festival.

Modi’s efforts to attract investments are bound to carry weight. But, the real impact of this visit will be known only when he gets back home and goes all out to push for growth. Because no American investor would come calling if the economy does not grow beyond the six per cent that everyone expects.

Tailpiece

Many have wondered what will happen to the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or the AIADMK, the party which is headed by Jayalalithaa now that she has been jailed. ‘Nothing’ was the point blank reply from Chennai-based friend and senior journalist, Bhagwan Singh. He had an interesting anecdote to narrate. He quoted the iconic founder of the AIADMK, M G Ramachandran, an actor-turned-politician who was chief minister of Tamil Nadu and popularly known as MGR.

MGR had once said, “I am Number One in the party. All others are zero. The value to zero comes only when it is placed next to One!” Today, Jayalalithaa is much more stronger than MGR. She will still rule Tamil Nadu. At least, until elections are held in 2016.

SOURCE: MUSCAT DAILY