The court is in mortal danger because of the mentality of the government to occupy the entire space, geographical space and the institutional space, the personal space and therefore, the government is determined of this, it is a totalitarian mentality, said Arun Shourie, Author and Economist.
In an interview to CNBC-TV18, Shourie discusses the Indian economy, judiciary and problems in the banking sector.
Edited Excerpts: Exactly this time four years ago, is when we had our last conversation when the government had just won the elections and you had put together a white paper on the economy that you were going to present to PM Narendra Modi. I don’t know whether you remember that conversation or you remember the white paper on the economy that you had put together but I will to you about your assessment of the economy and the government’s track record in a bit. Let me talk to you about the contents of your book and the issue that is capturing mind space and headlines today and that is the crisis in the judiciary, whether it is a battle between the executive and the judiciary or it is a battle within the judiciary itself, these are questions that will be answered overtime but given the fact that yesterday we have seen the decision of the collegium, which has been deferred now on what it intends to do, whether it intends to send back the name to the government or not for a week, what do you make of that? Do you believe that this is an attempt to deescalate or do you believe that this is giving in to what the executive wants?
It is obvious that the collegium could not have come to a decision and the record shows that at least four of the judges would have been of one view that we should send it back, if you look at their letters in the past, statements of Justice Kurian Joseph and others. Therefore, it must be that the chief justice - I would presume – has taken the view that we must give more names. If the government wants more names, certainly it will be convenient for the government. Whatever the motives and reasoning of the chief justice, it certainly helps the government.
Do you believe that if the decision is of the collegium to not send to the government as was expected, this is going to deepen the crisis, worsen the crisis?
Yes, it will be a fatal blow to the collegium and to the Supreme Court. If they do not send it back in fact, they have already delayed it too long. In my view, as I have said earlier, they should not have had an oath taking ceremony of one judge when they had sent two names. That itself was a completely non-Gandhian thing to do.
What is the way out of this now?
Way out of this is for the judiciary to stand absolutely firm on every little coma. That is the only way.
Do you see that happening?
No, I don’t see it happening because of the chief justice.
Hence I asked you, what is the way forward?
The way forward is precisely for the others to keep showing up the steps, which are being taken that are helpful to the government. For the other judges to keep showing those up, for disclosing them to the public and for all of us to be vigilant and to keep pinpointing those steps and opposing those steps.
You are suggesting that the other judges, the four judges for instance who held the press conference in January, they should do more of that now?
Yes, they should put it on record. I will really look forward to the time when we get to know the reasons on account of which this decision has again been deferred.
Do you believe that ought to have been part of the announcement that came in – that was a one word, deferral that was mentioned by the Supreme Court yesterday, do you believe that they ought to have explained why they chose to defer the matter?
Yes, they always keep talking about transparency, isn’t it? Doesn’t Supreme Court says that about other people? So what are they doing now? I believe that the court is in mortal danger because of the mentality of the government to occupy the entire space, geographical space and the institutional space, the personal space and therefore, the government is determined of this, that is in my view, it is a totalitarian mentality. Total control of the total space. Now, the only pillar left standing is the judiciary and they will not leave it alone. They will come back to you on appointments and the kind of things and suddenly they will wake up to this business of regional representation. Are you again having a reservations in one way or the other just now?
So you are saying that there is no validity to the argument that is being presented on the regional representation?
Of course not. That should not be the criterion, it must be competence. Competence to deliver judgements from a national point of view.
Why do you believe that what we are seeing today is worse than what we have seen in the past? I am not suggesting that let us do comparisons between the present and the past. I am saying why do you believe that what we are seeing today is worse than what has happened in the past because the attempts of political capture of independent institutions including the judiciary have been attempted in the past?
I just don’t understand why journalists keep asking this question. Has there not been merger in the past? Has there not been killing of children in Kashmir in the past through these pellet guns? Does that mean that tomorrow you should do it?
No no, I am not suggesting it makes it any better.
You know then why is the question being asked.
I am saying what do you find being different in the manner in which it is being done?
It is much more determined, it is much more systematic and much more unrelenting than even during the emergency.
Secondly, the Supreme Court itself is in a much weaker position in its composition. I don’t want to use words that are harsh but certainly even in the calibre of judges. Do you think that anybody would ever have thought of doing such a thing in the 1950s in India with Panditji at the helm or Patanjali Sastri as a chief justice? No. Could they have succeeded? No. During the emergency itself when chief justice AN Ray constituted a bench to overturn Kesavananda Bharati. In two days, he himself had to dissolve the bench because he saw that all the judges were against the proposition. I don’t see that happening today.
Given the fact that you don’t see that kind of unity within the judiciary.
Not just unity but calibre.
Plus calibre, plus you have seen unrelenting, in your words, attempt on the part of the executive to try and ensure that its will prevails then what is the way out?
The way out is for just you have to resist the authoritarian moves of the government in every sphere and every move and go on doing it.
You said that you would expect that the four judges like they did the press conference in January to continue their attempts, to come public and come on record?
Yes, that is part of their job.
What about politicians?
Impeachment motions, now you will come to that. You have asked the question about the four judges. But please don’t leave the task just to four judges. The media must stand up and see and not get caught in these useless statements of ministers and others, everybody has to contribute to shielding these institutions.
KPS Gill used to say very well that you cannot have a first rate anti-terror operation and a third rate system in the courts. In the same way, you cannot have a situation in which the judges will save freedom but we will only keep asking, this or that. Is freedom good or not good? Freedom can also be misused or why should there not be restrictions. That is a type of questions we are asking. The same way, citizens alone cannot save freedom if the – let us say in this case – the judges don’t stand up. So everybody has to do his part of the job. That is the way out.
I will ask you largely about governance and this was a government that promised greater degrees of transparency, this was a government that said whether it is allocation of natural resources, we will go through auctions and so on and so forth, are we moving towards a less transparent and a more opaque governance system today and I will ask you that in the context of two examples. For instance, a right to information (RTI). The latest data seems to suggest that for the first time since the RTI was actually brought in, we have seen a decline as far as the RTI applications are concerned. Some could argue that maybe things are so transparent that people don’t need to approach the government anymore but the other indicator could perhaps be that it is taking far too long for people to get answers or it is being blocked at various levels. What is your point of view?
I have said for three and a half years that the RTI will be systematically choked and that is exactly what is happening. Secondly, sedition — how many journalists and others and Hardik Patel and others have been hauled up under the law of sedition. Sedition means the overthrow of the country. Tell me, isn’t that choking of a free speech? So there is a systematic attempt and in the RTI, it is not just that things are taking long, but the things are completely blocked. Today you see that something — such and such data is not information — somebody says. You try and get any figure from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and see what happens.
Similarly, on the question of opaqueness, you are so well acquainted with the economy, what about these so called non-performing assets (NPAs). My father used to say, India is the only country in which non-performance is an asset. It is bad loan. The government data says that in the last four years, Rs 2,80,000 crore of bad loans have been written off. Okay. Why do you not disclose those names?
It is confidential. Every one of them had shouted at when Rajiv Gandhi’s government had said confidential. We had opposed it when they said confidential. After all these are public sector banks that means it is the citizen’s money and they have written off to friends of somebody.
Since we are talking about the issue of opaqueness and transparency in governance, I also want to understand your point of view on the introduction of the electoral bonds because this is going to be the first election that we will see the electoral bonds being used?
Yes, it is – there is no doubt that these will be monitored by the government as to who purchases them and this is another device so that everybody who gives any money to the parties opposing them will be targeted in the subsequent round. No doubt on that.
What is your take on the economy today and I started my interview by asking you about the white paper that you had put together?
I don’t remember.
But let me ask you about your assessment of the economic situation today.
In my view, the economy is not the issue today. The survival of institutions is the central issue, the survival of freedom is the central issue whether Kashmir will be further pushed out of India is the issue, whether the people of Nepal will be further pushed into the lap of china is the issue, whether the people of Sri Lanka will be further pushed back into the lap of China is the issue. Those are the issues. Whether we are not entangling ourselves in the American strategic perspective, which will be serving only their own interest, that is the issue.
You talked about diplomacy and you talked about our external equations. So, let me ask you then about China because you just talked about China and its growing presence in our neighbourhood. We have just seen the meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Xi Jinping, what the outcome of that meeting is, we are not clear today. What is your own assessment of the India-China equation in this context?
There is no comparison between the two. China is five times ahead of us in the economy and they are maybe 20 times ahead of us in defence preparedness.
In our case, one third of our air force fleet is not functional. Just see the testimony of the vice-chief of staff to the parliamentary committee, they have absolutely no money left for modernisation and they don’t even have Rs 7,900 crore or more than that which have been given for just security in their own bases, forget protecting the people. However, there is zero budgetary allocation for that and you are competing with China.
These ceremonial meetings are of no consequence. All this talk that is being made in India about the success of the meeting and so on, that is just Indians talking.
China has a consistent view. There is a book called
The Hundred-Year Marathon by Michael Pillsbury — one of the acutest observers for the CIA and for the Pentagon about the Chinese strategic pursuit, that they will be the dominant power in the world by 2049, that is 100 years after 1949 takeover of power. India is not even figuring in that. It is just regarded not even as a nuisance but as a potential nuisance which may become a bit of a nuisance if it allies very closely with Japan, Vietnam, Australia and USA.
The Chinese from time to time make these goodwill statements and so on so that India just thinks that there is some option here.
I don’t know but it should be. Only they will know. I feel there is a way out but they must first agree that we shall have only one candidate against a BJP candidate. Secondly, don’t hurry into a federal front and so on just now. As Yashwant Sinha has been saying, hold the meetings in different state capitals and the place where that meeting is held is the convenor of this front for that meeting. Third, you will have to leave the decision of allocation of seats between parties to the person who is the dominant person in that state or that sub-state, if the state has many regions and so on like north and south Karnataka or east and west UP and so on, then you have to leave it to the good sense of that person. That he would realise that we must get everybody together and therefore I am not going to completely use up all the seats for myself, I will be far sighted enough to allocate seats rationally. So, these considerations can certainly bring about a front.
Do you believe that this idea of a federal formation as is being discussed today with Mamata Banerjee, KCR, the possibility, the prospect of that is a real one?