Not everything important that happens in India is about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. You would not know this if you get all your information from India’s major English television news channels. Ever since the unprecedented press conference by four Supreme Court justices on Friday, much of the debate that began on TV and then traveled into WhatsApp groups and Facebook statuses, has been centred around this question: Which judges are on Modi’s side?
Immediately after the press conference, the channels began working on the assumption that the Chief Justice of India, whom the four other judges accused of disregarding important Supreme Court norms in a manner that might endanger democracy, is siding with the government. After all, CJI Dipak Misra is the one who insisted on cinema halls playing the national anthem before every movie (a directive that has since been withdrawn). Besides, he has been named in the suicide note of a former chief minister, an investigation of which might have shaken Indian politics but was instead given a quiet burial.
Communist Party of India National Secretary D Raja’s decision on Friday to pay a visit to the house of Justice Chelameshwar, who spoke the loudest at the press conference, gave the TV channels the clear handle that they needed.
For Modi’s supporters this was enough. Although the top two TV channels did not go out all guns blazing against the four judges who spoke out, no doubt taking their cues from the Bharatiya Janata Party which insisted this was an internal matter for the judiciary to resolve, the online army embraced this angle and ran with it. That TimesNow debating point from above, asking whether the “revolt” was “sponsored or spontaneous” might give you an inkling of what the general discourse focused on.
Meanwhile, in the other corner, critics thought it equally easy to fit the judicial crisis into a narrative that seems familiar: The Modi government leaning on institutions in the hope of controlling outcomes. The same was seen in the case of the Election Commission and the Reserve Bank of India, so why not also the judiciary?
Moreover, the judges seemed to confirm that the final straw was the Chief Justice’s handling of the case involving Special CBI Judge Brijmohan Loya, whose family believe he died in suspicious circumstances even as he was hearing a case in which BJP President Amit Shah was accused. Even though the judges only confirmed that it was the handling of the Loya matter that perturbed them, not the merits of the case, those looking for a narrative found one.
The simple fact is that this battle is not BJP vs Congress. It is not even Right Wing vs liberals. The chief justice cannot neatly be put into Modi’s corner, nor can the four judges be attached to the Opposition.
That is not to say that the matter does not involve the government. Indeed, everything from the way judges are picked to the fate of several key cases that will matter greatly for the BJP are on the line. Moreover, it is certainly a battle that the government and the prime minister would like to influence. But as became apparent on Saturday, when the principal secretary to the prime minister’s office tried to visit Chief Justice Misra’s house only to be sent back without being allowed to meet him, the current stand-off will not fit into neat categories.
Modi’s rise to the top of Indian politics over the last few years has come with a collapsing of local narratives. In the Modi age, everything political has to be about him, whether it is a grand campaign slogan meant for the entire Indian public or the inauguration of a local flyover. This presidential approach has infected the Opposition too, which has been unable to craft a narrative that is not built around taking on the prime minister.
But the Supreme Court is unlike any other institution in India. One might credibly be concerned that Election Commission or the Reserve Bank of India has had to bow down to the BJP-led government, and certainly Modi’s tenure both in Gujarat and at the Centre has come with questions on how he engaged with the judiciary not least in the case Loya was presiding over. But more than any other institution in the country, the Supreme Court is its own animal, a large, powerful institution with a complex history and truckloads of its own baggage.
If you include the entire judiciary, you are talking about an organisation that includes at least 17,000 people. That is a world unto its own, and because the judiciary has spent the last three decades accruing power to itself without accountability, it has in many ways turned into a zone where its own politics do not align directly with the standard BJP vs Congress shouting match we are treated to nightly.
A simple example may be the argument from BJP supporters who insist that the four judges are dead set against the Modi government and have complained that they are simply trying to force the Chief Justice’s hand against judicial transparency, without actually revealing anything in what was admittedly a very cryptic press conference. But that ignores the fact that the judge who spoke the loudest, Justice Chelameshwar, actually delivered a dissenting opinion upholding Modi’s National Judicial Appointments Commission, a law that would have brought more transparency to the picking of judges.
Governmental politics certainly intersect with matters that are internal to the courts, not least because the state is the largest litigant and constitutional matters by definition affect whoever is or would like to be in charge, but they are not the only relevant factors. This is why it is so hard for some news channels to even explain what is going on currently. We have been fed on such a steady diet of BJP vs Congress – whether it is about an election, a boat capsizing or an earthquake, the nightly debate will feature one representative of each party yelling at the other – that it is hard to comprehend a story that does not fit the formula.