Thursday, September 29, 2011

Karnataka’s Judicial Hall of Infamy

These are testing times indeed for the office of the ombudsman, the Lokayukta, in Karnataka.

Only recently, Justice Shivaraj V Patil was forced to step down as Lokayukta after a fine piece of journalism, by the Bangalore Mirror, revealed that he had obtained a plot of land in his wife’s name, which he had ought not to as a judicial officer. Another piece of investigative journalism, this time by the New Indian Express, reveals that former Lokayukta Justice N Venkatachala had converted a residential site allotted to him in Judicial Layout in Bangalore, into a tennis court, in full violation of land norms – a minor violation of course, compared to some scandals doing the rounds in the nation’s judiciary.

It must be remembered that Venkatachala was N Santosh Hegde’s predecessor – the man behind the investigative report on illegal mining that felled a chief minister and jailed a powerful minister. In fact, many wondered whether Hegde would be able to emulate him, such was the aura he had created while in office.

A former Supreme Court judge, Venkatachala brings to memory the daring officer who brought about a sense of respect and dignity to the office of the Lokayukta, which was granted little powers (or none in certain cases), by his raids on offices of corrupt government officials. T N Seshan's contribution to the Election Commission can be judged as a suitable corollary. Understandably, he was the media’s darling: the image of a diminutive Venkatachala standing in front of a humbled government official, caught for graft, remained, until recently, etched in the public’s psyche. It is difficult to say whether it would remain so. However, a comparison of the contributions of the officers to the famed institution is beyond the reach of this article.

While the violations committed by him may not rank alongside the famous (or infamous) 2G Spectrum or Commonwealth Games scandals, what is worrisome is the rather ham-handed approach to norms by the very authorities who need to ensure justice. On that notorious count, Venkatachala joins Justice P D Dinakaran and Justice K G Balakrishnan for being in the news for all the wrong reasons. The incident also holds out disillusionment for the common man in abundance; if the judiciary cannot be trusted to be clean, who can we entrust with the onerous task of cleaning the Augean Stables of the nation?