Our dysfunctional democracy seems to require judicial intervention to force regulatory action, investigation and punishment by the executive. On issues as disparate as cricket, public safety, noise pollution, interlinking of rivers, or investigations into everything from coal and telecom scams to riots, only the Supreme Court (SC) is finally able to direct that the system works for us, the people.
There are many who complain that the judiciary cannot seem to fix corruption within its own ranks and how justice is often denied due to lengthy litigation. But, all things considered and despite its dangers, this unique activism, or what is called ‘judicial overreach’ into the domain of the executive, alone seems to uphold the faith of ordinary Indians in democracy.
So it is three cheers to the judiciary for three important orders in July, which signalled that nobody, however rich or powerful, is above the law. The first cheer is for the SC-appointed Justice RM Lodha committee’s order on 14th July on the betting scandal involving the Indian Premier League (IPL). It confirmed charges and ordered stringent action against key personalities in the powerful cabal that has a vice-like grip on Indian cricket.
The Lodha committee was constituted in January 2015 to decide the quantum of punishment against Gurunath Meiyappan (son-in-law of N Srinivasan, chairman of India Cements as well as the International Cricket Control Board) and Raj Kundra (more famous as husband of actress Shilpa Shetty) and the two franchisees they represent—Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals, respectively.
For weeks before this order, India has been treated to a hysterical public debate over whether the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders were shielding Lalit Modi who fled to London five years ago. He, in turn, alleges that powerful ministers in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government vindictively singled him out to be the fall guy for all scams related to the IPL.
Lalit Modi, often described as the IPL czar, has been crowing on social media, about Justice Lodha’s order. The flamboyant Mr Modi, who has launched a unique war to ‘clean up Indian cricket’ says that Justice Lodha’s order has ‘barely scraped the surface’. And indeed, his sizzling tweets, photos and interviews, although posted from luxury hotspots of the world, do seem to suggest that the enforcement directorate (ED), which invariably does the bidding of the political masters, may have, so far, targeted only one individual while shielding the others.
All those indicted by the Lodha committee have already announced plans to challenge the order. This will provide another opportunity for the judiciary to expose the powerful clique of politicians, crony capitalists and cricketers who cosy up to them.
A nation, mad about cricket, is furious with the dirt spewing out from the richest cricket association, the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI). Cricket-lovers are asking some simple questions that need answers. Why is it that a top position in BCCI is as coveted as the post of a Union minister? Why is it de rigueur for every powerful chief minister, finance minister and members of parliament (MPs) to be on various state and district cricket boards? What exactly are the perks and dividends connected with these posts? Surely, they are not there to serve the game or the nation. And, finally, who are the Indian beneficiaries of the massive betting ring controlled by the underworld from abroad?
The second cheer is for the sharp rap delivered to liquor baron Vijay Mallya, on 13th July, for misusing the judicial process. Mr Mallya repeatedly evaded summons by the ED in the case relating to a $200,000 payment to Benetton Formula Ltd, a British company, to display the Kingfisher logo during the 1996-98 Formula 1 events. The ED claims that he did not have Reserve Bank of India’s permission to make the payment.
Criminal proceedings were launched against Mr Mallya. He first approached the Delhi High Court to quash these charges and, when that plea failed, appealed to the apex court. The SC dismissed the appeal and slapped an exemplary fine of Rs10 lakh on him for ‘sheer abuse of the process of law’. The Court’s scathing observation that “(his) enormous money power makes him believe that the State should adjust its affairs to suit his commercial convenience,” could well come back to haunt him in future.
Mr Mallya, the self-proclaimed king of good times, owes over Rs7,000 crore to Indian banks. He is facing investigation and action on several serious charges but has been successfully dodging action. A rap like this is bound to impair his skilful and well-oiled strategy of tying up investigation and regulatory action against him in a web of litigation in every judicial forum available to him.
The third cause of cheer is, for the strange Sahara saga that has played out in the apex court for several years. Probably for the first time ever, the apex court turned into an auctioneer and doubled the value of Sahara’s 47-acre property at Gorakhpur that was up for sale. The piece of land had received a bid for Rs64 crore; the money would go towards raising funds for Subrata Roy’s bail and was, hence, before the Court. While the hearing was on, another bidder upped the stakes leading to a virtual auction, which saw the price ratchet up to Rs150 crore. The Court has now posted the matter for August, with a few conditions attached.
That this could happen in the apex court ought to send a strong signal to defaulting industrialists who are known to fix the sale of properties among friends so that lenders trying to recover their dues get only a pittance. The apex court’s hard stand and its activism in the Sahara case, leading to Mr Roy’s unusual incarceration has exposed several murky details about the group and its activities. But these barely find a mention in media reports on the hearings.
The irony is that Mr Roy was victim of his own arrogance. The SC, in ordering his arrest for contempt, referred to his “dilatory tactics to delay implementation of the orders of this court.” It also pointed out that his defiant attitude towards the SC, “shakes the very foundation of our judicial system and undermines the rule of law, which we are bound to honour and protect.”
The key to Sahara’s strategy was its ostentatious display of wealth and power through political and social connections. However, once Mr Roy was arrested, the group, which issued advertisements boasting that it raised Rs74,000 crore, cannot seem to produce Rs10,000 crore (half in cash and the other half as bank guarantees) to bail out its chairman. Worse, the title of many of its claimed assets is dodgy and every attempt to liquidate them has turned controversial. None of this would have been exposed but for the fact that it is played out in the highest court of this country and it has only hardened the Court’s stand. There is now a second order asking the Sahara group to cough up further Rs26,000 crore in 18 months.
So, while the purists may carp about judicial activism or over-reach by the courts, and while it is true that the legal system itself needs a proper clean-up, it is the Supreme Court alone that still has the ability to shine a powerful light on the thick morass of corruption, apathy and cronyism that has enveloped the three other pillars of our democracy—the executive, legislature and the media.
(Sucheta Dalal is the managing editor of
Moneylife. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2006 for her outstanding contribution to journalism. She can be reached at [email protected]