By Sushil Kutty
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Justice of India Chandrachud have two years facing each across the aisle. The rightwing Prime Minister, and the left-liberal CJI described as progressive and ’woke’. Head to head, the two are as different as chalk and cheese, and the stuff on Chandrachud’s plate could taste bitter to the Prime Minister if circumstances forced him to take a bite!
The CJI also heads the collegium that selects the judges of the high courts, and of the Supreme Court, which for the Modi administration, especially, is a headache. CJI Chandrachud’s two-year tenure lends him an aura of unshakeable authority armed with destructive powers. His predecessor Justice UU Lalit was CJI for only 74 days, literally a case of here today and gone tomorrow!
CJI Chandrachud will, however, be there looking over Prime Minister Modi’s shoulder every single day of his two-year tenure, and the remaining days of Modi’s second tenure. Year 2024 will be the year of reckoning for both these opposing power centres.
And CJI DY Chandrachud’s reputation has preceded him. Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to ‘miss’ Justice Chandrachud’s date with President Droupadi Murmu at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and it is not hard to miss why? Ostensibly, the Prime Minister had more pressing engagements in poll-bound Gujarat where the ‘Gujarat Model’ is up against AAP’s ‘Delhi Model’.
The fact that CJI Chandrachud is the ideological opposite of Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes the Bharatiya Janata Party nervous. Modi cannot be seen as an opponent of the top court of India. Especially when he has been cultivating the aura of the all-inclusive head of the ‘Vasudeva Kutumbakam’ (the ‘whole world is one’) with the slogan, ‘Sabka Saath-Sabka Vikas’, (together we will develop).
For 12 years after the Gujarat 2002 communal riots, Modi was deemed a pariah. Nobody “international” wanted to be seen in Modi’s company. Then 2014 came and the tables turned. Since then, Modi has got himself a new coat of arms, so to speak, and the top citizens of the world are eager to shake hands with him, take photographs with Modi in the frame with them.
Naturally, there’s much to lose for the man who came in from the cold! Somebody in the mould of CJI Chandrachud can queer the pitch. There is too much at stake for this Prime Minister in particular. Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows that CJI Chandrachud with his two-year tenure is too much judicial clout in the hands of one judge!
That said, for the rightwing ecosystem, CJI Chandrachud is not an unknown quantity. They had him pat from Day 1. Here was a left-liberal dynamo with progressive written all over his black robe. Now, he is the ‘top woke’ in the topmost court of the land. CJI Chandrachud’s two years ahead scares the jeepers out of the rightwing Modi acolyte.
This fact has sunk in. “True lovers of democracy and diversity will need to scrutinise the two-year tenure of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud with a beady eye,” wrote a rightwing intellectual-scribe. “This is largely because he stands for a particular type of political ideology that goes beyond mere interpretations of the Constitution.”
To the Modi ecosystem CJI Chandrachud is an activist-judge, dangerous because he also heads the collegium. Modi’s Law Minister Kiren Rijiju has already sounded the bugle. The collegium has to be done away with. The quicker the better. And who in Modi’s realm does not know that the entire Modi cabinet including Rijiju is ‘His Master’s Voice’?
The Union Law Minister has been very talkative on the “collegium system” in recent days. To the Centre, the ‘collegium’ is an alternate power centre. To those opposed to the collegium system, SC justices are a privileged and entitled lot, nepotism writ large on many of the appointments. For the rest, the collegium system guarantees fairness, rule of law, and judicial independence, none of which can be compromised with; definitely not in these troubled times.
And just so that Narendra Modi’s cabinet ministers understand this, CJI Chandrachud has shot an arrow right across the bow, asking everybody in the Modi cabinet to “avoid grandstanding”. Politicians are born actors and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the ‘Dilip Kumar’ among them, the thespian! But can Modi, the event-management guru, stop showboating, “grandstanding”, as CJI Chandrachud put it?
The CJI before he became CJI had left his mark on the judicial firmament, his rulings on issues like LGBTQ, marital rape and adultery shaking up both the political and social landscapes. What worries the government’s roster of supporters is that when the rest of the collegium will keep retiring, CJI Chandrachud would be a fixture in the collegium for a two whole years, influencing judges’ appointments across the country.
In the United States, potential Supreme Court judges are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the US Senate. In India judges appoint judges. There is an element of nepotism, something which they share with Bollywood.
To say that the CJI and his collegium have an uneasy relationship with the central government is not farfetched. And then, when somebody “differently-abled”, like Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, comes along, the uneasiness peaks. The Chandrachud-led collegium appointed judges could be around till the middle of the 2030s, which is too much for the rightwing to digest.
The battle for supremacy between CJI Chandrachud and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already begun with Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju lighting the fire with comments targeting the collegium system. Article 124 (2) of the Constitution says judges will be appointed by the President after consultation with select judges of the Supreme Court, and respective state High Courts.
The collegium system leaves Article 124 (2) out of the discussion. The potential story is that the Modi government and the CJI-led Supreme Court could be at odds with each other and issues like the collegium system and “independence of the judiciary” will keep roiling the political battleground.
Be that as it may, believe it or not, CJI Chandrachud and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are going to be rival power centres in the days to come before Modi will be facing the electorate in 2024 seeking a third straight term. And several things have been happening at the same time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comfort, including Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’. Modi has to keep winning elections to keep the big cats off his back and that includes CJI DY Chandrachud. Will it be two years of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud and uneasy lies the head that wears the crown? (IPA Service)