The Supreme Court’s (SC) verdict on Wednesday upholding Gujarat Governor Kamla Beniwal’s decision to appoint of Justice (retired) RA Mehta as the state’s Lokayukta is being read by many as a setback for three-time chief minister Narendra Modi since the BJP leader was opposed to the retired judge’s appointment in the first place. But there is more to the SC verdict than this single issue. First, thanks to the verdict, Gujarat will now get a lokayukta after nine years of squabbling among the governor, the chief minister and the chief justice of the high court over the appointment. There is no doubt that this is a positive development because the state has been/is ruled by a ‘single-window’ authority (Mr Modi) for 11 years and the presence of a lokayukta will help to balance out things a bit. The appointment also comes at a crucial time when the issue of corruption is also high on the national agenda.
Second, the SC has ruled that the high court chief justice’s opinion must be given primacy in such matters. Third, the apex court has clarified the legal position on the role of a governor in the process of appointment of a lokayukta. Ms Beniwal had contended that the under the Gujarat Lokayukta Act, 1986, the state cabinet had no role to play in the appointment of the lokayukta, and that she could, therefore, fill up the crucial position in consultation with the Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court and the Leader of Opposition. This attitude has been correctly criticised by the apex court and should be seen as a warning for other governors who may be toying with such ideas. Of late, many governors have been acting like power centres. Recently, the Patna High Court had to intervene — and set aside the appointments — to resolve the dispute arising out of Bihar Governor Devanand Konwar’s decision to appoint vice-chancellors without consulting the state cabinet. In the Gujarat case, the SC has managed to strike a fine balance between constitutional principle that a governor has to act on the advice of the council of ministers and the need to have an anti-corruption watchdog. Describing, the inordinate delay in appointment of a lokayukta as “a very sorry state of affairs”, the SC has held that it was evident that Mr Modi had full information from the chief justice on this matter.
There are lessons for all concerned in this judgement. More than anything else, in a democratic set up, the successful functioning of the Constitution depends upon democratic spirit, ie, a spirit of fair play, of self-restraint, and of mutual accommodation of different views and different interests.