LIKE his predecessor, Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda is fond of saying: "The law will take its own course". But, following the Prime Minister’s secret meeting with Supreme Court Chief Justice A.M. Ahmadi at the latter’s residence past midnight on September 25, speculation has been rife that Gowda (and his predecessor) are no longer content to let that happen as naturally.
P.V. Narasimha Rao is believed to have been the subject of the meeting, though the PMO and the Chief Justice’s office stayed tight-lipped. "Gowda has been meeting Rao on a day-to-day basis and since the fate of his Government depends on Congress support, the public perception is that Gowda’s visit to the Chief Justice at an odd hour must have been in connection with Rao," observed former law minister Shanti Bhushan.
If the effort was to ensure that Rao did not go to jail, it was only partially successful. Rao, who was to appear before Special CBI Judge Ajit Bharihoke at the Tis Hazari district courts on September 30 to face the music in the $100,000 Lakhubhai Pathak cheating case, got a last-minute reprieve. But Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Prem Kumar issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against him in the St Kitts case on October 4.
The post-midnight conference between Gowda and Ahmadi had by then created a stir, embarrassing both the judiciary and the Government. The ‘cloud of suspicion’ thickened with subsequent events. On September 26, the day after the nocturnal tete-a-tete, the high court had thrown out the Government’s plea for changing the venue of Rao’s hearing for security reasons. At 5.30 pm on Friday, September 27, Delhi Police Commissioner Nikhil Kumar filed a special leave petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court seeking a change of venue. The SLP was admitted on Monday and October 7 fixed as the next date of hearing.
The same day, CBI counsel Gopal Subramaniam who was pursuing the St Kitts case, resigned in protest against the Government’s decision given in writing by Law Minister Ramakant Khalap—not to oppose bail for Rao.
The sequence of events have given rise to several questions. Why did Kumar (whose wife is a Congress leader) move his petition at the 11th hour—after security arrangements had been made at Tis Hazari at a cost of Rs 1 crore? District court lawyers (who went on strike to protest Kumar’s ‘bogus’ petition and filed a counter plea) say VVIPs are no strangers to Tis Hazari, and also that Rao ought to be treated as an ordinary accused.
That the SLP was mysteriously moved up from Case No. 48 to Case No. 1 on Monday morning suggests urgency. Why, then, was it not heard over the weekend by Justice Kuldip Singh in the absence of the Chief Justice? Lawyer Prashant Bhushan points out that the case was assigned to Justice M.M. Punchhi instead of the regular criminal benches headed by ‘tough’ judges A.S. Anand and N.K. Mukherjee. In the normal course, admits Rao’s counsel R.K. Anand, the case should have gone to one of the criminal benches.
Feeling the nocturnal Gowda-Ahmadi meeting had affected the judiciary’s credibility, members of the powerful Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) moved a resolution condemning it. The resolution is to be adopted at a general body meeting of the SCBA on October 10. "The Chief Justice should have told the Prime Minister that his visit would be inappropriate and declined to see him," says Shanti Bhushan.
The Delhi High Court Bar Association strongly condemned the law minister’s intervention on Rao’s behalf, pointing out that it is "contrary to law". The Supreme Court had laid down that a public prosecutor could not be dictated to by the Government on the discharge of his duties. The "kindest interpretation" of Khalap’s move, says lawyer Ram Jethamalani, "is that he acted in ignorance of the law".
Rao and Gowda have been fortunate in their brushes with the Supreme Court so far. After the Delhi High Court had refused to quash CMM Prem Kumar’s order summoning Rao in the Lakhubhai Pathak case, Justice Ahmadi exempted the former prime minister from a personal appearance, as soon as the SLP was filed on July 31. "With all due respect to the Supreme Court, in this it went grievously wrong and unwittingly exposed the apex court to criticism," says Jethamalani. At the same time, Rao’s case was transferred out of Prem Kumar’s court, to Ajit Bharihoke’s.
Last year, in the telecom tender case, first heard by Justice J.S. Verma and later by Chief Justice Ahmadi, the apex court had ruled in favour of Rao’s confidant and the then telecom minister, Sukh Ram, allege lawyers.
In another case earlier this year, when Professor D.C. Saxena filed a public interest plea demanding that the Government recover from Rao the cost of using IAF aircraft for campaigning, Justice Ahmadi dismissed the plea. Curiously, the Delhi High Court has issued notice to the Government of India in a similar PIL.
JUSTICE Ahmadi has also yet to pass an order in another sensitive case regarding the Vora Committee report (on criminalisation of politics), filed by former MP Dineshbhai Trivedi. The petitioner had demanded disclosure of the full report and action against those named by Vora. Justice Ahmadi also heard the petition against the appointment of Gowda as prime minister as he was not a member of either House of Parliament. The order is still pending and, in the meantime, Gowda has entered the Rajya Sabha.
With the SCBA resolution, Congress MP Priya Ranjan Das Munshi’s campaign for a special session of Parliament to discuss judicial activism may receive a fillip. The Bar has not been so upset since 1973, when Indira Gandhi superceded three Supreme Court justices so that a man of her choice could be appointed chief justice. Indeed, there are strong rumours that this may be repeated in order to bypass ‘hardliner’ Justice J.S. Verma in favour of ‘softliner’ M.M. Punchhi, especially after a press report to that effect last week.
Justice A.M. Ahmadi retires on March 25, 1997. And since Justice Kuldip Singh, who is next in line, retires on January 1 next year, Justice J.S. Verma would be the next Chief Justice of India. He retires on January 18, 1998. However, if the Union Government were to make a two-year term for chief justices mandatory (as the press report suggests), Verma would effectively be denied the post. The problem becomes immediate if Ahmadi were to cut short his own term by becoming chairman of the National Human Rights Commission in place of former chief justice Ranganath Mishra who retires on October 15 this year. In that case, Justice Punchhi, who retires five days short of two years on October 10, 1998, would take over as Chief Justice.
The PM’s press advisor, H.K. Dua, neither affirmed nor denied that a two-year term for chief justices was in the pipeline. "Circumstances seem to corroborate that there is such a move," declares Jethmalani. "It would," he adds, "bring down the Government and spark off nationwide protests." Says Shanti Bhushan: "It is likely that the Prime Minister may have suggested this, but the Chief Justice will not consent."