Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Supreme Court: Conflict of interest - a farcical alibi ?

General Assembly of the United Nations was once described as a "theatre of the absurd" by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former U.S. ambassador to India. The appellation may now better fit our Supreme Court.
A three member Bench of the honourable court had been hearing the arguments of Harish Salve in the ticklish litigation between RIL and RNRL (proxies for Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani) for six long days when Justice R.V.Raveendran deemed it fit to declare that justice should not only be done but seem to be done (it is difficult to come across a more hackneyed expression). He also felt sorry that six days of valuable time of the court had been wasted. So far, so good. What he went on to say is breathtaking. He lamented,"I wish that somebody should have brought to our notice earlier about my daughter's association with the firm." "I am recusing myself from hearing this matter since I came to know only yesterday that my daughter, Sunitha Rajesh, is associated with a solicitors' firm -AZB Partners- in Bangalore, which is advising one of the parties - RIL - in other matters relating to projects of global acquisitions."
Nothing prevents a judge from becoming casuistic in the middle of a hearing. What is intriguing is why did the judge expect others to tell him about his daughter's job which might have caused the conflict of interest. Further why was the daughter not cautioning him earlier ?

Justice Markandey Katju's withdrawal from RIL vs BPCL is even more bothersome. This is a six year old case the hearing for which closed on September 1st. The judgement was reserved. Justice Katju was heading the Division Bench hearing the case. He has now recused himself pleading that his wife is a shareholder in RIL. His declaration of assets which is posted in the supreme court website does not refer to any shares in RIL. There is only a reference to investment of Rs.2 lacs in the Reliance mutual fund by his wife. This mutual fund belongs to Anil Ambani's group and not to Mukesh Ambani's. (Justice Katju is so meticulous in his declaration that he has also mentioned that some shares mentioned in the list are not traceable. Apparently, depository participants have not marketed demat accounts efficiently !

So what is happening? Justice Raveendran and Justice Katju are both sticklers for judicial probity. Their bonafides are beyond doubt. This raises the possibility that they are not recusing themselves, but are rescuing themselves from possible pressure being exerted by corporate bigwigs.

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