The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in India is suffering from a resounding crisis of credibility. Having been re-elected in 2009, with the Congress, the main partner, winning an unexpectedly high 206 seats in the general elections to the Lok Sabha, in the two years since it has squandered the goodwill that propelled it to power. Massive corruption scandals have diminished the UPA. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, long regarded as a man of high probity, is now perceived as a leader who averted his eyes while his ministerial colleagues – both from the Congress and its coalition partners, particularly the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) – engaged in widespread loot.

Amidst the plummeting credibility of the UPA and politicians in general, there is one wing of government that has stood relatively tall, the Supreme Court of India. Over the past several months, since the details of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) scam first began to come out, the court has relentlessly kept up the pressure on the government on the twin issues of corruption and 'black money'. This has prevented the government from using the time-tested tactics of stalling and putting the brakes on investigating agencies. As a result of the court's efforts, we currently have the unprecedented situation of three stalwarts all being housed in Delhi's Tihar jail: A Raja, the Union telecom minister from the DMK, and Kanimozhi, both arrested for alleged involvement in the 2G scam; and Suresh Kalmadi, senior Congress member and chief of the CWG organising committee.

Keeping the pressure on, in early July, the Supreme Court constituted a special investigation team (SIT) to investigate black money stashed by Indian citizens in foreign banks, castigating the inaction of the government committee established to look into the issue. The court's close supervision of investigations has energised statutory bodies such as the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and the Central Bureau of Investigation, which have been pursuing corruption-related matters with a zeal rarely seen before. As skeletons continue to tumble out of the closet, more heads are expected to roll – as happened in the case of Dayanidhi Maran of the DMK, the telecom minister before A Raja, who was forced to resign from the cabinet on 7 July in the wake of a CBI investigation.

The Supreme Court has also recently gone into vital constitutional issues, delivering judgements that have strengthened democracy and human rights. In a landmark judgement on 5 July, the court directed the Chhattisgarh government to disarm and desist from deploying the Special Police Officers (SPOs) – part of the Salwa Judum, an armed vigilante force of Adivasi youths set up by the government to combat the Maoist insurgency in the state. In a widely lauded judgement, the justices came down heavily on equipping barely literate youngsters with firearms and employing them to combat rebels, holding that this not only endangered the lives of others but also deprived these young men of their dignity. While agreeing that combating the armed insurgency remained an important concern, the judgement pointed out that using these young men as cannon fodder was not the way to go about dealing with the problem. Any measure to combat Maoists, the court reminded the government, must be within the limits imposed by the Constitution.

Still, accountability

The quality of the Supreme Court has ebbed and flowed over the decades. It perhaps speaks volumes about the rest of government if the citizens of India today are today reposing increasing trust in a state institution that, it must be said, has a record that is far from spotless. In 1975, during the Emergency, the Supreme Court succumbed to authoritarianism when it agreed that even the right to life was abrogated during the Emergency. There have also been instances of runaway judicial activism. Most recently, between 2007 and 2010, when K G Balakrishnan was the chief justice, the court acquired a reputation as a place where justice could be bought for a price and corporate interests were favoured. Balakrishnan himself is currently under investigation for possessing unaccounted wealth, despite which the UPA government has appointed him to a position as important as chairman of the National Human Rights Commission.

Further, the 'judiciary' of India is far from a monolithic entity, and the situation in the lower rungs of the system is considerably worse. The judicial system continues to be clogged, with cases winding their way through the courts for years on end, even in criminal matters, and under-trials languishing for long periods in jail, sometimes beyond the term they would have had to serve if found guilty. The High Courts in the states have also displayed a distressing tendency to sway with the prevailing political winds, leading to ill-considered judgements. This was seen in the conviction of human-rights activist Binayak Sen by a court in Chhattisgarh on inadequate and unsatisfactory evidence. Sen was later granted bail by the Supreme Court, but there are hundreds of similar cases that have either not attracted national attention or where the convicted individuals do not have the wherewithal to appeal their cases through the higher judiciary.

Judicial reform has been much discussed, particularly measures to ensure that matters move speedily through the system, but little has actually been done. Likewise, even though the lower reaches of the judiciary are often perceived to be corrupt, action against such judges is rarely forthcoming. The courts have themselves resisted attempts towards accountability – including the Supreme Court itself, as in the ongoing efforts to keep the Supreme Court out of the purview of the proposed Lokpal Bill. While there might be apprehension of the Lokpal interfering with the independence of the judiciary, the need is to put safeguards against this rather than resist all accountability. Clearly the Indian judiciary needs to practice what it preaches and ensure its own accountability – doing so will only strengthen it, and raise it further in public esteem. Meanwhile, it is to be hoped that the Supreme Court consistently follows the positive trend seen in recent times.

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Himal Southasian