“I am proud and privileged to participate in the function to celebrate the diamond jubilee of the Gujarat High Court and that too in the presence of our most popular, loved, vibrant and visionary leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. There is nothing wrong in these words except the fact that it was a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court of India and not some political worker gushing about the Prime Minister from a public stage Saturday.
When a Supreme Court judge, whatever be his reason for doing so, decides to publicly praise any political leader, even if that leader happens to be the Prime Minister, it is a cause for worry.
And, Justice MR Shah, the Supreme Court judge who was so fulsome in his praise of Modi at a function to celebrate the diamond jubilee of the Gujarat High Court, wasn’t using such words for the Prime Minister for the first time. And that is a big problem, one that judges of the country‘s top constitutional court should introspect about sometime soon.
More worrisome is the fact that the judge chose to use such words even though he was clearly aware of the need and optics of a division of powers between the three pillars of the Constitution. For he himself in the later part of his address spoke about the division of powers between Parliament, Executive and the Judiciary as per the Constitution.
The Chief Justice of Gujarat High Court Vikram Nath didn’t just stop at the Prime Minister, he decided that even Chief Minister Vijay Rupani deserved public appreciation. After talking about the PM’s “sense of fairness” and “dedication towards duty”, the Chief Justice then spoke about Rupani’s “inspirational leadership”.
Last year, Justice Arun Mishra of the Supreme Court, now retired, had also spoken in very glowing terms about the Prime Minister, declaring him to be an “internationally acclaimed visionary and a versatile genius who thinks globally and acts locally”.
In August 2019 Justice Shah, who was then the chief Justice of Patna High Court, had described the Prime Minister as a model and a hero.
“Modi is a model. He is a hero. This is what is being said about him for the past one month. There are thousands of clippings on social media. The papers are also publishing the same daily,” he had said.
At a time, when the perceived pro-government stance of some judges while dealing with politically sensitive cases is already causing consternation among a large section of the citizenry, comments like those made by Justice Shah are problematic.
It is nobody‘s case that the prime minister is not the most popular politician in the country currently. But when the judges of the Supreme Court, who sit in judgement almost on a daily basis in cases involving the government headed by the Prime Minister, decide to shower praise on him from a public platform, it blurs the extremely important but invisible Lakshman Rekha that separates the Judiciary and the Executive.
In doing so, the judge also shakes the confidence of the common man in the judiciary. It is often said that it takes decades to build a reputation but a moment to lose it.
At a time when every action, rather lack of it, of the higher judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court of India, in contentious matters is being debated and discussed threadbare, the judges who make statements lauding political leaders like the Prime Minister do disservice to the high office constitutional office that they hold.
Judges would do well to remember that whatever they speak in public also has a ripple effect on the subordinate judiciary. After all members of the subordinate judiciary draw their cue from judges of the constitutional courts.
In times of a strong government, it is especially incumbent upon judges of the High Court’s and the Supreme Court to not miss any opportunity to showcase their independence – both individual and institutional. Doing so is often the best way to send out a message to members of the subordinate judiciary to not kowtow to any arbitrary expectations of the executive.
Unfortunately, Justice Shah and Chief Justice Nath seem to have chosen to ignore this important principle.