An error of judgment

THE RESIGNATION OF Justice K. Venkataswami from his twin posts is a result of the widespread misgivings about the propriety of his being appointed as Chairman of the Authority of Advance Rulings (Customs and Excise) at a time when he was the head of the Tehelka Commission of Inquiry. The retired Supreme Court Judge was clearly stung by the criticism that it was wholly inappropriate to assign a sinecure to someone vested with a probe of such enormous sensitivity, one that deals with the possible involvement of those in power and other senior politicians in crooked and shady defence procurement deals. Justice Venkataswami's resignation from the Tehelka Commission of Inquiry has placed a question mark over the future of this significant probe that, at the very least, is likely to be delayed by his decision to step down. As political charges and counter-charges are traded over what or who was responsible for this state of affairs, there is one inescapable fact that needs to be underlined. Namely, that such a situation would have never come to pass if the Centre had acted with foresight and prudence before appointing him to the Advance Rulings Authority.

It was only natural that Justice Venkataswami's appointment to this sinecure would be viewed with extreme reservation. At a time when the Tehelka probe was in progress, it is hard to see why he had to be accommodated in a new post. The attractions of heading the Advance Rulings Authority, which essentially involves giving binding rulings on customs and excise issues that are of concern to foreign investors, are obvious; the position comes with a regular salary and a guaranteed tenure until late 2004. Rather than foresee the natural and legitimate fears and misgivings that would ensue from this appointment, the Centre chose to pretend as if it had no hand in the matter. The Centre's defence was that its role was limited to writing a letter to the Chief Justice in September 2001, requesting him to nominate a retired Supreme Court Judge to the post. And that it was in January this year that the then Chief Justice of India, S.P. Bharucha, nominated Justice Venkataswami, a recommendation which was approved by the Union Cabinet, resulting in his appointment a few months ago. The argument that the Union Government's role was limited to the formal appointment after the nomination by the Chief Justice is not very convincing, given the practice of informal consultations on such issues. Even if one assumes for the sake of argument that the Centre was ambivalent about his appointment, shouldn't it have foreseen that it would raise grave concerns about propriety? Why did it fail to inform the Chief Justice of the misgivings that would be caused by the appointment at the time when a highly sensitive inquiry was on?

It is important to stress that such misgivings were unrelated to Justice Venkataswami's character; they did not stem from doubts over his integrity, his fairness or his ability to cope with his twin assignments as head of the Tehelka probe and chairman of a quasi-judicial body. Rather, they stemmed from the failure to recognise that parcelling out sinecures to retired judges is an extremely delicate matter. It must be done in a manner that not only is transparent but leaves no room for any misgiving whatsoever. The dramatis personae — the former Chief Justice, the Union Government and Justice Venkataswami himself — were oblivious to the questions of propriety that the appointment would raise, or felt that the judicial aura surrounding the appointment and his own personal reputation would insulate it from any controversy. In either case, it was an unfortunate error of judgment which has dragged a highly regarded judge of unimpeachable integrity into the morass of a bitter political dispute and in the process derailed the Tehelka probe for the moment.