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India unwrapped: CJI Misra under fire; Kodnani, Mecca Masjid accused set free

20 April, 2018

It was a busy week for the judiciary in India, but the courts didn’t earn any brownie points.

In brief, here’s what happened: a former Gujarat minister accused in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots was acquitted, five Hindu activists accused in the Mecca Masjid blast case were freed and the Supreme Court refused to probe the death of a judge who was hearing a case against BJP chief Amit Shah.

And now, for the first time in independent India, the opposition parties are making an attempt to impeach the chief justice of India.

Seven opposition parties, led by the Congress party, have approached vice-president Venkaiah Naidu to be allowed to move an impeachment motion against chief justice Dipak Misra. The opposition parties allege that Misra did not assert the “independence of the judiciary in the face of interference by the executive”.

The move, which has the support of 60 members of parliament, came three months after another unprecedented event–a press conference by four senior Supreme Court judges, who made serious charges against Misra.

Also, coincidentally, the move came just a day after the apex court declined an independent probe in the matter relating to the sudden death of justice BH Loya, who was presiding over the Sohrabuddin Sheikh murder case in which Amit Shah was an accused.

To be sure, Misra’s impeachment is unlikely as the opposition parties don’t have the required numbers.

While the political slugfest over the judiciary is set to get more intense, the ruling BJP could breathe slightly easy after the Gujarat High Court on Friday acquitted former state minister Maya Kodnani of any role in the Naroda Patiya case, by far the worst in the 2002 riots, which left hundreds of people dead and scores others injured and scarred for life.

Kodnani, a gynecologist who had been sentenced to 28 years in prison by a lower court, will now walk free. However, the court confirmed the life term of another convict, Bajrang Dal member Babu Bajrangi.

Kodnani was not the only high-profile person to be acquitted. Just a day before, all five Hindu activists accused in the Mecca Masjid case, in which nine people lost their lives, were set free by a court of the National Investigation Agency, giving the BJP a shot in the arm.

Even as Muslim groups cried foul, the judge presiding over the case, Ravinder Reddy, surprisingly resigned just hours after the verdict. His resignation was, however, rejected and he has reportedly returned to work.

It wasn’t just on the political front that things looked up for Prime minister Narendra Modi’s BJP. On the economic front, too, there was some good cheer as the weatherman predicted a good monsoon this year.

Moreover, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said India’s fiscal outlook was poised for a reset, as it predicted a 7.4% growth in the current financial year and 8.2% by 2023-24. The IMF’s fiscal monitor report said India’s declining debt-to-GDP ratio will create the basis for a lower interest rate regime, eventually setting the stage for a ratings upgrade.

But none of this means that the job market is likely to pick up any time soon. In fact, news this week points to a likely scenario quite to the contrary, at least in the immediate term. First, with the Idea-Vodafone merger likely to be finalised soon, as many as 5,000 people could be fired, a news report in The Economic Times said.

Second, three big companies that are facing bankruptcy–Lanco, ABG Shipyard and Alok Industries–are likely to go under as they have not found any viable suitors as part of the process initiated under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC). Another ET report said that if just Alok Industries goes down, as many as 12,000 jobs could be lost in one shot. This is something the BJP can ill afford, especially in a pre-general election year.

There was some good news, though. Electrosteel Steels Ltd became the first of 12 large defaulters, identified by the Reserve Bank of India, to win a court approval to exit bankruptcy. Mining billionaire Anil Agarwal-led Vedanta Ltd got a go-ahead for its Rs 5,320 crore resolution plan for Electrosteel from the National Company Law Tribunal.

But while this might make some bankers happy, at least one–ICICI Bank chief Chanda Kochhar–could find herself in more trouble. Details emerged this week that some unidentified “wellwishers” could have paid off the dues of Credential Finance, a now-defunct company promoted by her husband and his brother, even before she came to head the bank. The Economic Times reported that the payoff happened in March 2009, and that Kochhar herself was a shareholder in the firm.

Her bank, though, appears to be standing firm behind her for now, ruling out any action against her until there is enough proof. But the Central Bureau of Investigation has quizzed the chief financial officer of her husband’s renewable energy company NuPower, which is at the centre of the controversy, involving Venugopal Dhoot of the Videocon Group.

Kochhar’s travails notwithstanding, her and other banks across the country faced the heat, as did the government, as ATMs inexplicably ran dry in large parts, leaving people with little or no cash. The government has said the cash crunch is temporary, and will not lead to long queues outside ATMs and banks as happened in the months following demonetisation in November 2016.

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India unwrapped: CJI Misra under fire; Kodnani, Mecca Masjid accused set free

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