Justice Jasti Chelameswar has described it a defining moment in Indian history. You can’t argue with that whether you see him and his three brother judges as honest whistleblowers or driven by other motives.
It is a defining moment because it casts a thick, dark shadow over our most respected, loved and valuable institution, the judiciary. It also brings back to me a lesson one of our greatest chief justices had taught me once, the real Power of One, or how just one individual could mend a broken institution, or raise its stature to a level nobody will be able to pull it down long after them.
This was the launch in September 2011, at India Habitat Centre, of The Cobra Dancer, written by veteran Andhra journalist Devipriya. It is the somewhat curiously titled biography of former and legendary Central Election Commission observer K.J. Rao, who will always be remembered for giving us the cleanest elections in Lalu’s Bihar.
This event was different not only because it was so unlike the usual Page 3-type book release with celebs, wine and cheese. The audience was mostly Rao’s current and former colleagues, many senior citizens and some activists. There was almost no national or even local media. The only cameras I spotted were from some Telugu TV channels.
But there was some wisdom dispensed in that IHC hall that morning, as the speakers, with the exception of this writer, were all people who have built fame and admiration in not just leading our greatest institutions, but also developing them into the brands we feel so proud of: former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma, former Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh and S.Y. Quraishi, then CEC designate.
It was something that Justice Verma said, while explaining the challenge of institution-building, that got me thinking. An institution can rise to its true strength, and truly play the role the founding fathers mandated for it, only if it is led by a person “who has no past (to hide), and no expectation (of any reward) from anybody in the future”.
Someone who has no past and no greed for anything in the future? Simple enough, you might think. But it isn’t. It is tough enough to find many people with nothing to hide in their pasts, so they are not prone to blackmail, or weighed under by IOUs conceded. People who can judge a case, run an election, prosecute a criminal politician, investigate a corrupt bureaucrat effectively and fairly. But where do you find someone who, in addition to this, would be willing to retire quietly into obscurity? Our system is much too brutal and clever to let such rare people rise anywhere close to the top. That is why it is only providentially, rather than by choice, that one such is put in charge of an institution. And then the institution changes, and rises to its true power.
How many of our institutions do we really feel proud of today? That we trust fully to protect our constitutional rights and liberty? Your count will not go beyond two, the Supreme Court and the Election Commission. In both cases, we were fortunate that just a couple of remarkable people came to lead them at some crucial junctures of our history. Justice Verma himself picked up the thread from the great judges of the seventies, a remarkable handful led by late Justice H.R. Khanna in a cruel and crucial decade for our democracy, to raise the Supreme Court to its true constitutional power, respect and glory. Verma then also took the weight of the same moral authority to the National Human Rights Commission.
T.N. Seshan showed the country — and the Election Commission itself — the power that the Constitution had intended to grant it but that his predecessors had never used, in the mistaken belief that they were merely another department of the government. The EC was fortunate again to get an even more formidable chief—and not a fraction as controversial or idiosyncratic as Seshan—in J.M. Lyngdoh, who took its reputation and credibility even higher, burying a tradition of state-sponsored rigging and terror threats in Kashmir and defying Narendra Modi’s loaded “James Michael Lyngdoh” chants to hold another election in Gujarat on his own terms. Between the two of them, they built Brand EC to such a level that even the frailties of the odd lesser successor have not been able to dent it.
Seshan himself failed to pass the second part of Justice Verma’s test, by his delusional quest for Rashtrapati Bhavan. But to his credit, he had taken the image of the institution so high that the only stature his hubris damaged was his own. The EC then survived many controversies and shenanigans, and at least one CEC who completely flunked the Verma test. Forget going into retired obscurity or the lecture-/book-writing circuit, he cadged a Rajya Sabha membership on a party ticket and then a ministry so insignificant (sports) that the only reason he was noticed was because of his unseemly turf wars with Suresh Kalmadi and a fellow Gill (KPS) of the Indian Hockey Federation.
Today nobody dares to mess with either the EC or the SC. One can still countermand an election in Bihar or Kashmir and the other can set the CBI on the Sohrabuddin case. Both have survived sabotage, subterfuge, allurements and vilification by the political class. All because a few, just a few, good men came to lead these at some providential moments of time.
Can you imagine how much stronger we would have felt as a nation if just two other institutions, the CBI and the CVC, had also been similarly fortunate? We will wait for that to happen. But until then, we do owe a debt of gratitude for these four judges who, collectively, have exercised that Power of One. It will be disappointing if their unprecedented “coming out” merely jolts the judiciary and allows the executive to play with the cracks. It is more likely that it will lead to much fairer debate and greater transparency and bring new strength to our most hallowed institution. It is a reasonable expectation on this historic, but sad day.