Behind the leak

Print edition : January 30, 1999

REFERRING to a note made on a land reform bill pertaining to Bihar on which President Rajendra Prasad had some reservations, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in September 1950 to his Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, that the President's note "should not be circulated so as to preserve secrecy". Nehru observed: "It would have been unfortunate if parts of it had leaked to the press. Therefore, it was not circulated but read out in the Cabinet."

In the latest controversy involving the President and the Chief Justice of India on an opinion recorded on the appointment of judges of the Supreme Court, a note by the President which was not considered by the Cabinet has been leaked out and debated publicly.

Pandit Nehru had instructed that copies should not be made of Rajen Babu's note and that the original document should be deposited with the Cabinet Secretariat. In the same note Nehru had urged that "the advice tendered by the Cabinet should be acted upon by the President from the constitutional and practical points of view." In the current controversy, what is most important to note is that while giving his opinion the President acted upon the recommendations "constitutionally and practically" and cleared all the names submitted by the Government for judicial appointments. What is ironical is that an opinion by the President noted in a file is being debated publicly although it was not discussed by the Cabinet. The Prime Minister and his colleagues have also not reacted to the development.

President Rajendra Prasad also had written to Nehru calling attention to undue delay in appointing a Chief Justice of the Rajasthan High Court "as there was nothing against him".

There have been differences in approach between practically all Presidents and governments in India over issues. The probable exceptions were the presidencies of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed - for reasons known to all - and Zakir Hussain, who was in office only for a short while. Some of these instances were debated publicly and in the press. But no notes exchanged between them were made public or debated as has happened now - which makes one believe that there are political motives behind this instance.

An opinion expressed by the President on a government file should have remained a matter between the President and the Cabinet instead of being distorted to look like a controversy between the President and the Chief Justice of India.

President K.R. Narayanan in the normal course noted his opinion on a file submitted to him on the matter of appointment of judges. The Constitution does not prevent the President from noting his opinion on a file submitted to him. Besides, President Narayanan's remarks were in keeping with the spirit of the recent judgment of an 11-member Bench of the Supreme Court. It seems implausible that the President's remarks were 'leaked' by the Chief Justice.

Judging from the unhappiness of the Bharatiya Janata Party with the President over the issue of dismissal of the State government in Bihar (the BJP, it is worth recalling, took diametrically opposite positions in the cases of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh) and on other issues, it is common sense to believe that the President's opinion was 'leaked' to the press by certain interested circles in order to drag President Narayanan into this unfortunate controversy.

At a demonstrable factual level, President Narayanan did not mention any quota system or 'reservation' in the matter of judicial appointments. He did not also say that "merit" should not be the criterion. What the President observered, according to the leaked reports, was that "eligible persons from SC/ST categories are available" and "their underrepresentation or non-representation" in higher judicial appointments "would not be justifiable." Is it possible for any sensible and fair person to disagree with this observation? But a section of the media chose to distort and misinterpret it to achieve the political objectives of their masters.

President Narayanan had made it clear that he will function as a "working President". Being the guardian of the Constitution, he has the responsibility to protect it and contribute to achieving its great ideals. His refusal to be a political tool and his decision to function objectively and impartially is not to the liking of many people, as the current controversy and the forces behind it reveal. The head of state's refusal to function as a rubber stamp in the U.P. and Bihar instances and on some other matters, and his candid expression of views, sometimes in public, has not been to the liking of some political quarters. Therefore, what he does which is exemplary in the eyes of the ordinary citizen, such as exercising his franchise after standing in a queue along with others, is seen as a departure from some protocol. President Narayanan has set a new example and held the high office with decorum and invested it with dignity. Any attempt to tarnish his image will not be in the interest of the nation.

The unceremonious dismissal of Admiral Bhagwat (it is not certain whether the word Admiral can be used any longer in this case as there are reports that the officer is being denied his status, rank, pension and so on without any due process); the attack on the headquarters of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and threats to Pakistan's cricket team by an important ally of the BJP and the Central Government's refusal to take action in the matter; intolerant or bizarre reactions to the film Fire, to the award of the Nobel Prize to Amartya Sen and to the works of M.F. Husain; the cancellation of the visit to India of a golf team from Pakistan earlier... all these instances make one ask what is the agenda before the Government. Partners in the ruling coalition at the Centre have expressed dissatisfaction over the state of affairs and some of them have described it all as being Hindutva-driven, while remaining in the coalition. It is not the National Agenda that the Central Government is implementing but something beyond that. Why drag in the President and the judiciary into this?

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