At first glance, the prime minister’s remark that we should look at whether the judiciary is being driven by five-star activists may seem a case of executive over-reach.
But what, in effect, he has said is that the judiciary needs to guard against the perception in several quarters that it, at times, plays to the gallery, especially in high-profile cases.
The sum and substance of Narendra Modi’s remarks is that the judiciary needs to do more self-assessment and not fall prey to scare-mongering.
It is fair to say that what has come to be termed judicial activism has been facilitated by the executive either faltering or abdicating its responsibilities. But the fact that many cases are subject to trial by the media has led to the suspicion that the popular mood rather than strict adherence to jurisprudence has driven some of them.
There have been several cases, some of them very high-profile, in which summons have been issued on flimsy grounds or a person incarcerated for longer than necessary without charges being pressed. Many of these have been played out in full media view and often the course of justice has seemed to be influenced by the vox populi.
Judicial decisions must be seen to be beyond reproach, for as the PM puts it, a mistake by the judiciary is the ‘end’, it has no corrective mechanism as does the executive.
The responses that a course of judicial action stimulates in society cannot be the barometer of justice, it is neither desirable nor objective for the judiciary to take such aspects into account.
This is not to suggest that civil society should not play a role in ensuring that justice is done on many issues that concern the greater public good. But a situation cannot be created whereby the judiciary, or sections of it, has to be mindful of societal opprobrium or approval.
The judiciary is really the court of last resort for all Indians. This is why it becomes so important for it to apply the highest standards of objectivity to itself.
In several cases in recent times, public opinion has been overwhelming on one side or the other. The PM’s note of caution is to nudge the judiciary into taking a completely juridical stance, irrespective of the public mood. In the case of PILs too, we have seen a perfectly good vehicle of justice sometimes used to settle personal scores.
This has to stop by making it prohibitive for the vindictive or frivolous litigator. While Mr Modi’s words that the judiciary be both perfect and powerful ring true, the executive too must play its part in fulfilling its role so that the judiciary feels no compulsion to fill any vacuum in decision-making.