Even by the standards of our rapidly plummeting polity and social discourse the events of the last week have shocked all right (and left) thinking people. We have known for some time that scatology is the only subject our politicians excel at, that the judiciary is headed only one way – downhill – and that our public institutions are increasingly headed by doormats who perform precisely that simple function – allow their masters to clean their feet on them and walk all over them. But last week we learnt that there are further depths to be plumbed.
Our revered Prime Minister, who has been in this constant Atilla-the-Hun mode since he took office, has finally proved that Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar was not far off the track when he had used the “N” word for him a couple of years ago. If language is the window to a man’s soul then what Mr. Modi’s language reveals is the utter heart of darkness: a bitter, malicious, vindictive, egoistical, narcissistic man who has only contempt for the living and damnation for the dead. Only such a man would have used the words he did for Rajiv Gandhi, mocking his death: “when Rajiv Gandhi died he was “Bhrashtachari no. 1.” Of course, we should have expected nothing better from a man who spews hatred and invective as naturally as a spitting cobra spews venom. In the past he has referred to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi as a widow who (impliedly) benefits from a state pension and to Sunanda Pushkar as a “fifty crore rupee girlfriend.” Nothing is too crass, or obscene, or base for his tongue. He constantly derides the benefits of education (“hard work” vs “Harvard” jibe), but just compare a speech of Mr. Modi with one by the man he has a pathological hatred of, Jawaharlal Nehru, and one can see what Mr. Modi has missed. The vicious manner in which he has of late been vilifying an ex- Prime Minister who died 28 years ago may show his desperation, but it also reveals that he is perhaps also delusional and has lost touch with reality. He has robbed the office of Prime Minister of all dignity and gravitas.
Can the Election Commission of India crumble any further? is the question being asked this week. After sitting (no doubt paralysed with fear) over election related complaints against Mr. Modi and Mr. Amit Shah for weeks, it has now absolved the former of any culpability in all the nine complaints against him, and Mr. Shah of those against him, for good measure. This is the final imprimatur of its partisanship and impotency. This is a Commission that finds a reference to a woman’s underwear a bigger violation than the categorisation of a murdered Prime Minister as India’s most corrupt man, even though he had been acquitted by both a High Court and the Supreme Court! Did Mr. Seshan and Mr. Lyngdoh labour so bravely so that the pygmies who succeeded them could drive this once great institution to the ground? Only Mr. Ashok Lavasa, according to some media reports, had the guts to recommend that the these complaints were justified and that FIRs should be registered against both. Mr. Shah and Modi . Mr. Lavasa holds out hope that when the real acche din return (as they must) the institution can be revived and released from the clutches of time servers.
The biggest scandal of the past week, however, has to be the murky goings on in the Supreme Court and its upending of all canons of justice and fair play in the “in-house” inquiry” into the sexual molestation charges against the CJI. The three judge panel has denied every legal right to the complainant, proceeded exparte against her, followed no procedure known to law, and hastily issued a report that raises more questions than it answers. It has taken the extraordinarily perverse decision to give a copy of its inquiry report to the accused (the CJI) but refused to furnish it to the complainant! The refusal to make it public, or to state the reasons for its finding exonerating the CJI of all charges, cannot but raise awkward suspicions and questions: Why did it refuse requests by eminent jurists (including Justice Chandrachud and even the Attorney General) to co-opt an external member to the panel ? Did it examine the evidence (thirty pieces of documentary evidence were submitted by the complainant, according to Mr. Prashant Bhushan in an interview to the QUINT) and the witnesses cited by her? Why did it not allow the complainant to cross-examine/ confront the CJI ? Did it examine the persecution of the complainant and her family by the Court and the police after the incident? Did it look into the procedure followed by the court Registry while imposing the unusually disproportionate penalty of dismissal on her for availing just a half day’s casual leave? Why were the enquiry proceedings not video-graphed? Why was she not given a copy of her statements to the committee?
More questions and misgivings will inevitably emerge with the passage of time, protests have already broken out across the country including Kolkatta, Bangalore and Mumbai, politicians too will soon jump into the fray once election fever has abated. The Supreme Court cannot stifle these voices by imposing Section 144 CRPC and forcibly detaining those who protest its suspect conduct, as it did on the 7th of this month. It has to come clean with the facts and the strange processes it appears to have followed in this modern version of the Spanish Inquisition, it has to break the peculiar vow of Omerta its judges have taken to protect one of their own. Opacity cannot be a defence. A court’s best defence is its reputation for fair play and its credibility; if it has to be protected by the police and the power of contempt instead, then its days are numbered. Judges do not define a court, the universal principles of justice, fair play and transparency do so; silence and opacity do not build judicial reputations, courage and conviction do. How our Supreme Court will respond to this existential challenge will determine whether it survives as a beacon of hope in these dark times or sinks into the morass which has already engulfed all our other public institutions. It has dug itself into a hole and should now stop digging any further.
How much further can we sink as a country?