'Indian democracy cannot be a tyranny of the unelected'

The Supreme Court of India, by a majority opinion, has struck down the 99th Constitution Amendment, which provided for the establishment of the National Judicial Commission to appoint judges of the High Court and the Supreme Court.

The key rationale behind the majority opinion appears to be that independence of judiciary is an essential ingredient of the basic structure of the Constitution. This is unquestionably a correct proposition. Having stated this, the majority transgresses into an erroneous logic.

It argues that the presence of a law minister in the Commission and the appointment of two eminent persons in the Commission by a group, which will, besides Chief Justice of India, comprise of the prime minister and the Leader of the Opposition, will constitute political involvement in the judicial appointments.

Judges appointed on this basis may feel gratified to the politicians. Political persons would be obviously guided by their political interest. The judges warn of “adverse” consequences if politicians were a part of the appointment process. Hence, protection of the judiciary from political persons was essential. This is key reason on which constitution amendment, unanimously passed by both the Houses of Parliament and state legislatures, has been struck down.

The judgement ignores the larger constitutional structure. Unquestionably, independence of the judiciary needs to be preserved. But the judgement ignores the fact that there are several other features of the Constitution which comprise the basic structure. The most important basic structure parliamentary democracy. The next is an elected government which represents the will of the sovereign.

The prime minister in parliamentary democracy is the most important accountable institution. The Leader of the Opposition is an essential aspect of that basic structure representing the alternative voice in parliament. The law minister represents a key basic structure of the Constitution; the council of ministers, which is accountable to parliament. All these institutions are a part of the Constitution’s basic structure. They represent the will of the people.

The majority opinion was understandably concerned with one basic structure – independence of judiciary - but to rubbish all other basic structures by referring to them as “politicians” and passing the judgement on a rationale that India’s democracy has to be saved from its elected representatives. The judgement has upheld the primacy of one basic structure - independence of judiciary – but diminished other basic structures.

This is the fundamental error on which the majority has fallen. A constitutional court, while interpreting the Constitution, had to base the judgement on consti-
tutional principles. There is no constitutional principle that democracy and its
institutions have to be saved from elected representatives. The Indian democracy cannot be a tyranny of the unelected, and if the elected are undermined, democracy itself would be in danger.

The illustrations given had to be on a sound footing. If one leader feels that there are dangers of Emergency, there is no presumption that only the Supreme Court can save it. When in the mid-1970s the Emergency was proclaimed, it was people like me – the politicians, who fought out and went to prison. It was Supreme Court that caved in and, therefore, for the court to assume that it alone can defend the nation against Emergency, is belied by history.

As for the cause of those representing alternative sexuality, the Delhi High Court had decriminalised it. I am a part of the present government, but I had publicly supported opinion of the HC. It was the Supreme Court which recriminalised alternative sexuality. The assumption that the cause of the practitioners of alternative sexuality to be appointed as judges, can only be protected by Supreme Court, is again belied by history. The Supreme Court opinion is final. It is not infallible.

The judgement interprets the provision of Article 124 and 217 of the Constitution. Article 124 deals with the appointment of judges in the Supreme Court and Article 217 deals with the appointment of judges of the High Court. Both provide for the appointment to be made by the President in consultation with the Chief Justice of India. The mandate of the Constitution was that CJI is only a ‘consultee’.

Cannot rewrite law

The President is the appointing authority. The basic principle of interpretation is that a law may be interpreted to give it an expanded meaning, but they cannot be rewritten to mean the very opposite. In the second Judge’s Case, the Court declared Chief Justice the appointing authority and the President a ‘consultee’. In the third Judge’s Case, the courts interpreted the Chief Justice to mean a Collegium of Judges. President’s primacy was replaced with the Chief Justice’s or the collegium’s primacy.

In the fourth Judge’s case (the present one), the verdict has interpreted Article 124 and 217 to imply ‘exclusivity’ of the Chief Justice in the matter of appointment excluding the role of the President almost entirely. No principle of interpretation of law anywhere in the world gives the judicial institutions the jurisdiction to interpret a constitutional provision to mean the opposite of what the Constituent Assembly had said. This is the second fundamental error in the judgement. The court can only interpret – it cannot be the third chamber of the legislature to rewrite a law.

Having struck down the 99th Constitutional Amendment, the Court decided to re-legislate. The court quashed the 99th Constitutional Amendment. The court is entitled to do so. While quashing the same, it re-legislated the repealed provisions of Article 124 and 217 which only the legislature can do. This is the third error in the judgement.

The fourth principle on which the judgement falls into an error is while stating that collegium system, which is a product of the judicial legislation, is defective. It fixed a hearing for its improvement. The court has again assumed the role of being the third chamber. If there is a problem with the procedure of judicial appointments, have those legislative changes to be evolved outside the legislature?

As someone who is equally concerned about the independence of judiciary and the sovereignty of parliament, I believe that the two can and must co-exist. Independence of the judiciary is an important basic structure of the Constitution. To strengthen it, one does not have to weaken parliamentary sovereignty which is not only an essential basic structure but is the soul of our democracy.

(The writer is Union Finance Minister. Views are personal)

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