Din over Dinner
If the famous judges’ press conference in January this year was unprecedented, then one of its key participants, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, pulled off yet another unique event last week. On the eve of Constitution Day, the chief justice of India hosted a dinner at the judges’ lounge of the Supreme Court which had in attendance Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Other judges of the top court and chief justices of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan, who were in New Delhi to attend the BIMSTEC conference, were also present. This was perhaps the first time ever that an incumbent prime minister visited the Supreme Court premises to dine with the chief justice of India.
The invite to Modi has expectedly raised eyebrows, particularly among those who had lauded the judges at the January presser for resisting political interference in the higher judiciary. Senior advocate Indira Jaising even posted images from the dinner on Twitter with pithy comments –”Deeply Disappointed” and “Pretty picture, agree?” With the Supreme Court, especially its bench headed by Chief Justice Gogoi, now a target of daily derision and ridicule by senior BJP leaders for not expediting the Ayodhya title suit proceedings, speculation about what the head of the Judiciary discussed with the head of the Executive has already gained momentum. The dinner also came at a time when Chief Justice Gogoi’s bench is hearing several other sensitive cases, including CBI Director Alok Verma’s petition, which have put the Modi government in an embarrassing spot. The chief justice also had a one-on-one interaction with the prime minister following the dinner. Curiously, Attorney General KK Venugopal, the government’s top law officer, left the Supreme Court premises much before Modi’s delayed arrival at the venue.
Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal has done it again. Months after his appearance and controversial arguments in the politically polarising Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi title suit left the Congress leadership red-faced, the veteran lawyer has again forced his party into an embarrassing spot. While Congress President Rahul Gandhi is leaving no opportunity to brand Anil Ambani as the biggest beneficiary of the Modi government’s alleged crony capitalism, Sibal has been hired by Reliance Communication—owned by Anil Ambani—to appear in a legal dispute against Reliance Jio—run by Mukesh Ambani—in the Supreme Court.
Sibal’s appearance for Reliance Communication in the top court on November 27 led journalists to question Congress spokespersons on how the party viewed one of its most prominent legal hawks representing the one industrialist Rahul Gandhi loves to hate. Officially, the party has decided to stick to the line that the media must view Sibal’s professional commitments as the country’s top-billing lawyer, separately from his political work as a Congress member. Off the record, though, many party leaders have been expressing their discomfiture on the issue. Congress leaders are also joking about the possibility of Sibal appearing as Anil Ambani’s lawyer in the scores of defamation cases the controversial, debt-ridden tycoon has slapped against various media houses—including the Congress-affiliated National Herald—for their reportage on the Rafale deal.
Mohammad Azharuddin, the former Indian cricket captain who started his political innings with the Congress and became an MP from Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad seat in 2009, finds himself sidelined by the party. Azharuddin’s last truly political outing was in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when the Congress fielded him from Rajasthan’s Tonk seat. The switch from Moradabad was because local leaders were opposed to his renomination. Azhar was among hundreds of other Congress candidates in 2014 who got swept away by the Modi wave. Ever since, he has been trying to stay politically relevant. Sources say the party had asked him to make space for himself in his home state of Telangana where the Congress was wiped out in the Lok Sabha and assembly polls due to the popularity of Telangana Rashtra Samiti chief K Chandrashekhar Rao—the architect of the newly carved state. The Congress wanted to pit Azhar as its Muslim face in the state against AIMIM chief and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi. Azhar wanted to be fielded in the assembly polls from a safe seat in Secunderabad but his hopes were dashed by the Congress leadership. The former skipper was negotiating with a close kin of Rao to facilitate his entry into the TRS when a desperate Congress high command decided to appoint him as working president of the state unit.
Faking the News
In the run-up to crucial state elections, it was inevitable that fake news and distorted facts would show an increase but even by that reckoning, Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s IT cell, has taken cut-and-paste propaganda to a new low. On November 27, Malviya tweeted a video of Manmohan Singh in which the former prime minister is heard saying “the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were very good”. The clip Malviya sent appeared to show Singh praising the BJP-ruled state governments and he then added a caption which read: “Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh contradicted Rahul Gandhi, says governments of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were ‘very good’… Waters down everything Congress president has been saying over the last few days!” Once the clip went viral, and the original speech was uploaded, it turned out to be a crass and clumsy example of political editing. In the actual speech, Singh was not praising BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. He was, in fact, advising Prime Minister Modi to not discriminate against non-BJP ruled states. His original statement said: “My relationships with the government of Madhya Pradesh, the government of Chhattisgarh were very good.” He was talking about his tenure as prime minister when these states were under BJP rule.
There is an official list of VIPs which also includes spiritual figures and those who occupy certain official positions in government and public sector. The hierarchy and who qualifies for special treatment can be seen at the Reserved Lounges maintained by the Airports Authority of India at airports across the country. Only two religious figures—Shankaracharya of Dwarka and Mata Amritanandamayi—make it to the list, which means others like Sri Sri and Sadhguru, despite their high profile, political clout and celebrity status, are missing from the access list. Other relatively unknown VIPs who make it because of occupying a certain post include chairman, All India Council for Technical Education, and chairman, Appellate Tribunal for Forfeited Property. These worthies rank above the Solicitor General of India!
Failing the Test
An audit, commissioned by the Central Information Commission, has revealed some startling facts about the transparency of information on the websites of ministries, official agencies, universities, banks and public sector undertakings. The audit report, released last week, showed that 35 percent of all the government bodies audited got an “E” grade, the lowest ranking possible. The information meant to be available on the websites under Section 4 of the RTI Act, was as sparse as possible and pointed to blatant non-compliance in disclosing basic information about their functioning and administration, including transfers, allocation and utilisation of funds, trips abroad by officials and even lacked information on meetings held and decisions taken. Ironically, the worst offenders, according to the report, are the Central Vigilance Commission and the Election Commission. The “E” grade ranking also went to a number of ministries as well as Punjab National Bank, in the eye of the storm for loans to prominent absconders.
In fact, the audit would have produced even more shocking results had everyone responded to the proforma sent out by the two-man audit team. Of the 2,092 public authorities who were sent the questionnaire, only 830 responded. What the audit clearly shows is that many of India’s public institutions have a lot to hide, RTI or no RTI.