SC chief disappointed over Subramaniam episode; government on the defensive

The Narendra Modi government was virtually on the defensive over the Gopal Subramanium affair today, after no less a person than the Chief Justice of India R M Lodha criticised it for blocking the candidature of the former attorney general for a Supreme Court judgeship.

Chief Justice of India R M Lodha"The centre can't be blamed for the Gopal Subramanium row," government sources said, according to a CNN-IBN report. "In 2009, too, the then law minister Veerappa Moily, on the basis of an anonymous letter, had not considered C K Prasad's name for the Supreme Court judge."

Further, "Gopal himself resigned, so the government couldn't do anything. If the Supreme Court wanted, it could have sent Gopal's name again and the government would have abided by it. It didn't and so the government cannot be held responsible. The government fully respects the judiciary."

This overlooks the fact that the Chief Justice was out of the country when Subramanium withdrew his candidature. Chief Justice Lodha was also equally displeased with Subramanium going public with the allegation that he was ''victimised'' for his perceived partiality to the former Congress-led UPA government.

Lodha was also disappointed at Subramanium resigning as solicitor general. "It was a sad thing to learn that you have resigned from the position of Solicitor General of India. Not only that in every single case --in which you represent the Central Government and its functionaries -- was ably conducted by you but it also reflected your high character, sweet manners and single minded application," Lodha wrote.

Justice Lodha said he had asked Subramanium to reconsider his decision to withdraw his candidature. ''I came back on June 28 and had a meeting with Subramanium asking him to reconsider (his decision to withdraw consent for being appointed as judge). He replied the next day with a six-line letter expressing his decision (withdrawal of his consent) that he cannot go back on it..." he said.

''On June 29 when he wrote a letter reiterating his position, I was left with no choice but to recall the proposal (recommending Subramanium's name for appointment as judge),'' the Chief Justice said.

Speaking at a farewell ceremony organised for Justice BS Chauhan who retired on Tuesday, Justice Lodha reportedly said, "Segregation, unilaterally done by the executive without my knowledge and concurrence, was not proper. This is very, very unfortunate."

In what looked like a confrontation between the judiciary and the executive, Justice Lodha said he would not allow the judiciary's independence to be compromised. "I promise 1.2 billion people of India that independence of judiciary will not be compromised,'' he said adding ''I will be the first person to leave this chair if judiciary's independence is compromised." He said the independence of the judiciary was something he had protected for 20 years.

"I fail to understand how the appointment to a high constitutional position has been dealt with (by the government) in a casual manner," he said.

Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad refused to comment on Justice Lodha's remarks, but they are significant as the first chastising of the NDA government by a judiciary that has not shied away from rebuking the UPA government in the past, including on the coal block allocations.

The collegium-based system of appointments of judges, through which the executive is more or less kept out of the process of appointment, had already been challenged by the UPA government, which sought to amend the law. Recent reports suggest that NDA will follow its lead.

(See: Chief Justice Lodha anguished over Subramanium affair)