At a time when the pillars ought to be steady and the roof intact to face approaching turbulence, when these start swaying perilously, that is the moment to summon the ambulance and the fire brigade. It is at such times that one looks up to institutions that provide the right guidance.
The honing of the country’s democratic processes over the years and their fine tuning to make for the equitable distribution of wealth had more or less withstood many destabilising trends. With the passing of each decade, half century, they had adapted to these changes to suit local conditions and cultural preferences. So in the second decade of this century, with seventy years of more or less successful conduct of the democratic experiment behind, it ought to have been much easier to get on with the job.
So it was a bit disconcerting, even for one sceptical of the entire process, to see some of these institutions straining at the edges. These are institutions one had looked up to for redress, for guidance, for providing moments of solace, and when these begin to become unsteady and loss equilibrium, one gets an eerie feeling.
Whenever there has been a dispute or a case of blatant misuse of power, the impulse has been to reach out to the Central Bureau of Inquiry to investigate it so that justice is done. It was a given that this body of impeccable credentials and probity would not be swayed by any influence and do full justice.
It was also the belief that the experts in black suits and carrying briefcases to the hallowed precincts of the Reserve Bank of India in Mumbai’s Mint Street were some miracle workers who would keep the currency steady and fine tune interest rates and monitor such mysterious acronyms as PPPs and NPAs so that overnight the country does not have to pawn its heirlooms and gold reserves. Once in a while these experts would lighten the mood by a subtle reference to ‘haircuts’ and the view of Frankfurt airport as the flight descends.
Barristers have always played such an inalienable role in framing the statutes and the Constitution and were in the forefront of the freedom struggle as well right from the beginning, and picked holes even in the cleverly crafted Minto-Morley reforms package. They had fought the rulers flinging their Magna Carta back at them and the Evidence Act and the Criminal Procedure Code for good measure. They also, in their dark gowns and lugging tomes of case studies, were like the sages of old, immersed in honing the procedures.
Elections have always been a messy and noisy affair and tend to be the safety valve for the release of much pent up frustrations and energies and this is also the one time the people felt they had a role in the shaping of their destinies. But with frequent elections with the staggering or bunching together of these it has also become a continuing process, so that at any given moment there is an election somewhere in the country and had lost much of its sheen.
Which leaves the fourth pillar, the frenetic media, and its role had become critical in the digital age and it’s manifesting in many new and dazzling avatars. The role this plays in bringing in all the excitement into the drawing rooms can only be matched by the smartphones and social media. But the persons behind the media are after all human too, and as Christopher Hitchens remarked that even the heavy armoured carrier of Rumania has a soft spot, the driver, the media’s soft spot is the competitiveness that makes it to be the first to reach the spot or provide the latest, mostly heightened, drama.
All the recent momentous events began with a press conference four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court to place before the public some of the goings on in that august place. Was the Chief Justice one among them or how was the roster framed and duties allocated, all of which the public had not a clue about, had to be brought to the public domain. This move amounted to a virtual revolt against the Chief Justice. The judges, including Justice J Chelameswar, the second senior judge after the Chief Justice, left everyone wondering how this open dissension would be resolved. The trigger for this was the assignment of the Judge Loya case to Justice J. Arun Mishra’s bench.
‘Four of us have been telling the CJI Dipak Misra to correct his ways for the sake of the institution. We have spotted things in the last few months. Tried to intervene but to no avail. 20 years from now, nation should not say we sold our souls. We tried to collectively tell CJI Dipak Misra that certain things in the administration of the SC are not in order. Unfortunately our efforts failed,’ Justice Chelameswar said. It was an ‘extraordinary event’, and ‘the first of its kind in independent India’, and ‘unless this institution is preserved, democracy will not survive,’ he said.
Soon after this press conference, the Chief Justice called the Attorney General and highly placed sources said both felt the issues the four judges raised were an ‘internal’ matter of the judiciary, indicating that the government was unlikely to interfere. Both also felt that the apex court should settle the issue at the earliest as the faith of the people in the judiciary was at stake.
As if shaken up by these developments the Chief Justice resolved to deliver half a dozen landmark judgments within the month before he demitted office.
These included the validity of the Aadhar Act, de-criminalisation of homosexuality and adultery, entry of women to the Sabarimala shrine, reservation in promotions for SC/ST candidates and the issue of disqualification of charge-sheeted politicians from contesting elections. Many of these were issues where the verdict would potentially alter the socio-political landscape of the country.
Of these the Aadhaar case hearings went on for 40 days, and perhaps was the longest after the celebrated Kesavandana Bharati case of 1973 where a 13-judge Bench propounded the basic structure theory.
For the people of Kerala, recovering from unprecedented floods and picking up the pieces the Sabarimala verdict could not have come at the worst moment. Suddenly armed with the verdict volunteers began to march to the shrine in the high ranges that had already withstood the ravages of the deluge and landslides. That agitation does not seem to have shown any signs of being resolved.
After the Karnataka elections and the setbacks for the ruling front at the Centre, elections to five states in December were critical. And the day before the results were to be announced the RBI Governor Urjit Patel sent in his resignation after a long-drawn battle of disagreements with the Central Government, though in his short resignation letter, he did not mention anything critical of the government.
Analysts believe the decision came because the Centre had for long been trying to pressure the RBI to ease its lending norms and other policies. But there were straws in the wind and Deputy Governor Viral Acharya’s remarkable speech at the board meeting, cautioning against infringing upon the autonomy of the central bank was the first straw that all was not well.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, no stranger to Mint Street, said the decision was a severe blow to the economy, at a time when it is faced with many headwinds. The Patel resignation had immediate effect, the Rupee forwards posted their biggest daily slump in five years and Sensex fell by nearly 750 points.
The rivalry between the BCI director Alok Verma and special director Rakesh Asthana ‘ is too well known within and outside,’ according to sources and it began the day Asthana’s appointment as special director was cleared by the government.
A 1984-batch Gujarat cadre IPS officer with a track record of handling several high-profile cases like the Bihar fodder scam, the Godhra train burning case of 2002, the Ahmedabad blasts of 2008 and those related to Asaram Bapu, Asthana was heading probe in cases of AgustaWestland, coal scam and also that of businessman Vijay Mallya.
The Supreme Court’s verdict upholding the validity of Aadhar, the giant and controversial government program to collect and store the biometric data of billion-plus citizen, however, placed new limits on how the data can be used and stored.
The government's flagship program had huge benefits in delivering welfare efficiently, but biometric data can no longer be used by private entities such as banks or mobile phone operators for authentication purposes, curbing the program's ambitious scope as a universal ID but ‘Aadhaar empowers the marginalized sections and gives them an identity,’ said Justice Arjan Kumar Sikri delivering the 1,448-page verdict.
The original idea of its founder, Nandan Nilekani, was to be able to easily identify people fraudulently claiming government benefits, like food or fuel rations but over the years it has morphed from a welfare delivery tool to a near-necessity for everyday life and citizens have been asked for their Aadhaar cards to access a host of government and private services including new bank accounts, school enrolment, booking flight tickets.
But lawyers can be trusted to make even simple things complicated and among the host of petitioners was Prasanna S who said the court had delivered a ‘body blow’ to the ‘vision of the Aadhaar project as a universal and ubiquitous ID’ and the order ‘effectively makes Aadhaar voluntary, not mandatory.’
Over the past decade, more than a billion citizens had been enrolled in the government's database, and to reach the remote corners, officials went to tribal villages, setting up pop-up registration centers at schools or going door-to-door to enter records of more than two billion eyeballs and ten billion fingerprints into the database. Records of bank accounts, addresses, income tax filings, and other digital data were compiled and linked together.
But the ambitious program's flaws were evident and critics were quick to point out that some of the neediest were denied their food rations and other welfare entitlements because of authentication errors or Internet connectivity problems. Media outlets and online activists also reported vulnerabilities in the technology and the way in which the data is collected and the Center for Internet and Society said that government websites may have accidentally leaked details of 135 million citizens.
As early as 2012, a retired high court judge K.Puttaswamy, 92, from Nilakeni’s hometown Bengaluru, filed the first petition saying that Aadhaar had no statutory basis and it violated the right to privacy. He was worried that the program could be abused by illegal immigrants who might have used their biometric ID cards to claim citizenship.
More ominous, some argued, was that Aadhaar was a dangerous ‘Big Brother’ program, and could be used to keep tabs on how citizens spent money, where they travelled and who they called. ‘As the Snowden revelations show, if the state has the power, there is always a temptation,’ said another petitioner, referring to the former National Security Agency agent who leaked details of the U.S. government's electronic surveillance program.
They filed reports demonstrating how fraud of ghost beneficiaries and counterfeit identities added to the enormous strain on the stretched welfare system. And Venugopal contended that trillions of rupees were allocated for the program but more than half never reached the beneficiaries.
This was the heart of the dilemma facing the five-judge bench: the state's duty to provide welfare services to the huge population so it can have a dignified existence, versus the individual citizens' right to privacy. This is the dilemma that all the pillars, the judiciary, the legislature, the executive and more important of them the media, face and how to strike a balance.