The tendency to view court judgments as victories and defeats is an unfortunate aspect of public discourse in India. Selective reading of judicial pronouncements, hurried real-time analyses and adversarial predilections are the order of the day.
Little surprise therefore that the Supreme Court's verdict on Subramaniam Swamy's petition was interpreted variously: the petitioner called it an "exoneration" of the PM but an indictment of his secretariat; the prime minister's office found in it the PM's "complete vindication" and the BJP projected it as an indictment personally of Manmohan Singh. It was left to former attorney general Soli Sorabjee to inject balance in the hugely partisan debate. He categorised the court's remarks as "criticism" of the PM's office.
What requires emphasis is a political point missed by all: the judgment ensures relatively smooth conduct of coalition regimes by eliminating room for bullying or blackmail of the PM by party colleagues or alliance partners as had happened in the case of A Raja. A minister from the DMK quota, he stayed put despite Singh wanting to divest him of the Telecom portfolio as early as in June 2010.
It wasn't the first instance of an ally's veto defeating the PM's writ. That has been the trend since the mid nineties. Many among Singh's predecessors found their prime ministerial prerogatives trampled by allies with legislative numbers to pull down regimes. Sitaram Kesri and Lalu Yadav bullied Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral; AB Vajpayee gave in to the patently unreasonable demands of Bal Thackeray and George Fernandes.
The judgement setting a time frame for decisions on petitions seeking sanction for probes or prosecution is now the law of the land. It'll sustain even if parliament fails to amend section 19 of the prevention of corruption act to introduce the three month time limit the Court has prescribed.
The court's diktat is neat and shall go some distance to ensure accountability. By recognising the locus of private citizens to seek investigation/prosecution against public servants, notably ministers, it has obviated scope for political brinkmanship in jerry-built power sharing arrangements. In this limited sense the order is an improvement over the Vineet Narain case where a similar time limit was fixed for sanctions sought by prosecuting agencies.
"Law making has to be in tandem with systemic changes ensuring independence of investigators and prosecutors. As justice delayed is justice denied, Courts too have to streamline justice delivery," said Narain.
The time-frame now stipulated by the apex court is valid as much for rejecting sanctions. But it doesn't take away from dissatisfied complainants' the right to move courts. Swamy did just that and succeeded.