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The Supreme court deals with a variety of issues. This book attempts to make sense of the chaos and is a good reference work

By Sanjay Hegde


 

A constitution, said Napolean Bonaparte, should be “short and ambiguous”. The framers of India’s constitution ignored that advice, and went on to write one of the longest constitutions in the world. While written constitutions have the advantage of being definitive in one sense and capable of being referred to as scripture, yet in another sense, they need constant interpretation to keep up with the times. The interpretative task invariably falls upon the shoulders of the Supreme Court and its interpretations though fallible, are final.

V Venkatesan’s first book, Constitutional Conundrums: Challenges to India’s Democratic Process, reflects upon the interpretative tasks undertaken by the Supreme Court in recent years over a wide canvas of issues, ranging from the dissolution of state assemblies, Forests Rights Act, the limits of federalism to questions of judicial overreach.

In recent years, though the 24×7 cycle of media reporting has increased the quantity of day-to-day reporting from the Supreme Court, sadly, quantity has been at the expense of quality. The court’s orders and judgments are often viewed in an episodic manner, driven by personalities and rarely is an institutional analysis and perspective offered. The Indian media space has not yet thrown up a Jeffrey Toobin or a Dahlia Lithwick, whose reporting and books on the working of the US Supreme Court have often shaped the views of lawyers, judges and politicians. Working on the US Supreme Court is based on a greater sense of precedent and order, since it is an institution whose incumbents change rarely and which rules on a limited range of legal issues devoid of a factual matrix. Books like Bob Woodward’s The Brethren and Jeffry Toobin’s The Nine have given the reader a sense of the US Supreme Court’s working as an institution and how individuals play a pivotal but not an overwhelming part in the final outcome of any discourse therein.

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(Above) The rules regarding president’s pardon point out why only three persons, Dhananjoy Chatterjee, Afzal Guru (right) and Ajmal Kasab, were hanged in the last 14 years

ORDER OUT OF CHAOS

On the other hand, those who have written on the Indian Supreme Court have often called it the most powerful court in the world. Yet, those who man this institution do not have a tenure for life, nor do they sit and decide cases en-banc or as a collective whole. Judges of the Indian Supreme Court are transients, who for a short period of years, are dressed with a little brief authority. Authors have also remarked on the sheer variety of issues the court attempts to tackle and how it struggles to bring some semblance of order out of chaos. Venkatesan’s book is an important contributor to understanding that effort.

Venkatesan has the advantage of being not subject to the breaking news syndrome of television journalism, as he works for Front-line, the fortnightly magazine published by the Hindu group. As he writes in his introduction to the book: He “could keep considerable distance from the pulls and pressures of daily journalism, and look at the contemporary events with some objectivity”. He credits his interaction with the blog “Law and other things”, as leading to an “exchange of scholarship with my colleagues and the readers on the blog” which helped him to “look at the contemporary issues thrown by the working of the constitution from a vantage point” and perhaps resulted in the book.

Also, Venkatesan has been a good investigator and follower-up of events as recorded in the official files. He has made timely applications under the Right to Information Act, and obtained original source material to back up his reports. The 25 annexures to his book are all documents which will be of interest to legal historians and chroniclers.

EXHAUSTIVE JOB

The book covers a period of constitutional development between 2001 and 2014 and covers most of the notable judicial and constitutional controversies of the period. Divided into four parts, involving separate themes from parliament and the executive, onto federal tensions and judicial overreach, and the autonomy of the election comm-ission, the book does an exhaustive job of pigeonholing constitutional questions into appropriate slots. Each heading is further divided into individual chapters, dealing with particular cases that highlight the conundrums which are attempted to be resolved by the court. The author does a good job on reporting the factual background to the controversy and how the issue was framed for the court’s consideration. The resulting judgment and the inconsistencies underlying it are set out in good detail along with the informed comments of perceptive commentators on the issue. Contemporary reporting of the issue is also reproduced in separate boxes. In effect, each chapter is an independent report in itself on a major judgment, and this book in all probability, will be a work of reference whenever these issues are re-agitated before the court on a future date.

However, the absence of a major unifying theme or individual figure in the book, renders it more of a compilation of reports relevant to the legal profession, rather than an introduction to constitutional law-making for the informed lay reader.
Venkatesan, with his unique vantage point, sound writing ability and his eye for detailed fact-gathering, has, in effect, produced a good reference work, when it could have been molded into a legal bestseller for a mass audience.

But the advantage of having written a good first book is that the second is not long in arriving. All in all, the book is an informative read and a worthwhile addition to the library of any lawyer, legal academic or outsider with more than an informed interest in constitutional law.

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