Union law minister Kapil Sibal’s assertion that the government must have a say in the appointment of judges and that a proposal to replace the 20 year old collegium system to choose top judicial post holders will soon be moved in the cabinet does not inspire confidence. His remarks come in the context of judgments and observations of the superior courts and particularly of the Supreme Court in recent times, as scam after unearthed scam has been dragged through the courts. These have not been palatable to the government in power and have increasingly drawn its ire. Thus, in recent weeks we had an outburst by none other than senior Congress leader and party general secretary Digvijaya Singh, symptomatic of the feelings rife in the party, who accused the apex court of running down institutions in calling the CBI a caged parrot. Singh felt it necessary to instruct the court in the separation of powers, suggesting that the pillars of democracy cannot encroach upon each other, ominously adding that ‘We (the elected representatives) are chosen by the people and are answerable to the people’. There is obviously no dearth of people in party and government who feel that the judiciary has stepped out of its place and has to be put back in a box. Thus, Sibal’s remarks do not suggest a disinterested and well-intentioned attempt by government at judicial reform in order to strengthen judicial institutions but a piece of meddling to weaken it.
It is true that the collegium system is not perfect and has its weaknesses and detractors. Yet it has minimised that excessive interference by the executive in judicial appointments that compromise the judiciary’s integrity and independence. Before the judiciary wrested the power of appointments, it passed through an era in the 1970s of executive dominated appointments which placed it under attack, as evidenced in the supersession of honest and competent senior judges, passed over in favour of pliable junior ones. There were at that time calls for a ‘committed’ judiciary even as a campaign of calumny was unleashed against it, from which Singh probably draws inspiration. It is hardly the executive but the people of India who have a stake in judicial appointments to ensure honest and competent judges to bring the wrongdoers, particularly in high-places, to book. While the system of judicial appointments could bear an examination, changes must not be hastily brought about in an election year by political parties that have committed many sins and the conduct of whose members is being judged by the judges.