India's V-P rejects opposition bid to unseat Chief Justice

Congress party threatens to go to Supreme Court, as rhetoric heats up ahead of elections

A failed attempt to impeach the Chief Justice of India has become the latest battleground between the ruling and opposition parties in India as the political discourse heats up ahead of next year's general election.

India's Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu on Monday rejected an impeachment motion, which was moved by 64 Upper House MPs from seven opposition parties, including the Congress, India's main opposition party.

The parties had accused the Chief Justice of abusing the exercise of power in allotting cases to other judges with the "likely intent" of influencing the outcome.

But the Vice-President found little merit in their attempt, saying the charges were "not tenable".

The Chief Justice, who has six months left of his tenure and has not publicly commented on the motion, found himself in the headlines in January when the four senior-most judges after him in the Supreme Court criticised the way he allotted cases to judges.

The Congress party has said it will petition the Supreme Court itself even as the episode has triggered a round of heated exchanges between the national political parties.

The Chief Justice, who has six months left of his tenure and has not publicly commented on the motion, found himself in the headlines in January when the four senior-most judges after him in the Supreme Court criticised the way he allotted cases to judges.

"The Congress party has spared no institution and is attacking the electoral commission, Supreme Court, army for petty political gains," wrote Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah.

Congress hit back, even calling the Vice-President's order "ill advised" and threatening to go to the Supreme Court.

Ties between the BJP and Congress have been rocky since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.

But in the run-up to elections, the rhetoric is heating up. State-level elections in Congress-ruled Karnataka and BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan will be held first. The general election will follow, in which Mr Modi is seeking re-election.

The BJP is hoping to repeat its landslide win in 2014 on the back of his popularity, even as the Congress and other opposition parties are exploring alliances.

The impeachment move itself, analysts said, was aimed more at embarrassing the government with little chance of passing in Parliament, where the BJP had the numbers to block the motion.

"Yes, naturally, it was intended to embarrass the government. But I think Congress miscalculated the move. They rushed into it. There was opposition within the Congress from Manmohan Singh and others," noted Delhi-based analyst Amulya Ganguli. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh was not among those who had signed the motion, leading to speculation that he was not in favour of the move.

Still, analysts noted many decisions by politicians from now will be shaped by the elections and aimed at scoring political points.

"When a government enters its fourth year in office, it is quite common that the confrontation with the opposition takes on a feverish pitch on the ground," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University. "It is just beginning now."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2018, with the headline 'India's V-P rejects opposition bid to unseat Chief Justice'. Print Edition | Subscribe