SC is slow to hear contentious issues that give fodder to poll campaigners

Though judiciary generally stays away from political questions, its judgments and even observations of individual judges (“caged parrot”) have had powerful impact on national elections. Supreme Court interference in the 1990s’ in Hawala diaries, Mandal-Masjid issues had serious consequences on the then governments. It did more harm to the parties in power than 100 speeches from platforms. In 2014, the Congress suffered humiliating defeat when the court passed a series of orders in scams like 2G spectrum, coal block allocation and the Commonwealth Games. 

This time, however, the court has made disruptive matters out of sight. Politicians might wring their fingers because the judiciary is not giving them any such gifts for the coming polls. The Mandal-Masjid controversies are still simmering, the review of Rafale judgment is pending and the roles of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) are not of immediate concern. While the wheels of the government are speeding, showering benefits on the electorate, the court has apparently parked polemical matters on the sideway. Whether the delay is unintended or a deft move by the court is in the realm of delightfully vague speculation.

The previous Chief Justice Dipak Misra showed some expediency in taking up the Ayodhya appeals by listing them out of turn last year. Then he retired and the new CJ Ranjan Gogoi became the ‘master of the roster’. But in a series of astrological misfortunes, the members of the Constitution Benches kept changing. First, there was a controversy over the choice of judges by the CJ acting as the master of the roster because those who had handled the case earlier were left out. That ran against the revered conventions. When it was corrected after clamour, one judge in the new bench had to recuse because as a lawyer he had represented Kalyan Singh, who was the UP chief minister when the structure was demolished. A new bench was formed, but one judge was “unavailable” for undisclosed reasons. The next hearing is set for March 14, gods willing.

Even if the bench formation is final, the verdict would not come very soon without divine intervention. The judges have to plod through deposition of 88 witnesses, running into 13,886 pages, 257 related documents and video tapes, earlier court orders running into 4,304 printed pages and 8,533 typed pages. Thousands of pages in Persian, Sanskrit and other languages have to be meticulously translated. The judges have to hear counsel for some 14 parties and governments. Considering the normal pace at which proceedings go, it might take months to get a decision. Instead of swearing against this situation, one would be grateful that the public are spared the cacophony or calamity that could follow a hurried decision.

Another campaign topic, the Rafale deal, is also on the back burner.  The controversial judgment is not likely to be reviewed very soon. The government has moved the Supreme Court pointing out judicial errors  in understanding phrases in the documents it had handed over to the judges in sealed covers. Meanwhile, several new facts have tumbled out into public domain.  A review petition is meant to correct ‘errors apparent on the record’ and to reconsider a judgment in the light of new facts before the court. 

Also under the carpet is another bitter dispute — 10 per cent reservations for economically backward among forward classes. The Mandal judgment of 1992 has been tweaked too many times by the court and the state governments have incrementally sapped the affirmative principle enshrined in the Constitution. The latest amendment has been challenged for violating its basic structure. The final answer would not come in time for politicians to pull chestnuts out of the fire. Another sensitive dispute over the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is also on hold. 

Taking a peek into the dockets, one would find other burning issues like the finalisation of NRC, Article 370 granting special status to Jammu & Kashmir, the entry of young women into Sabarimala temple and the status of AMU.  Justice delayed on such subjects has deprived election campaigners much fodder, but the public has been mercifully saved to some extent from the shrill debate.


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