Stopwatch justice

SC wants a four-month deadline for govt to give sanction; what about the years of trial in a court?

The Supreme Court is right in underlining the need for speedy sanction to prosecute public officials in corruption cases. The court was responding to a petition by Subramanian Swamy, who alleged "inordinate delay" by the prime minister's office in responding to his petition on the 2G spectrum scam, and withholding sanction to prosecute the then telecom minister, A. Raja. The UPA argued that the PM was waiting for the CBI's probe to be completed before granting this sanction, a view upheld by the Delhi high court, but now struck down by the Supreme Court, which has demanded a clear and brief timeline for such sanctions.

The judgment is unambiguous that much public corruption carries on unchecked, secure in the knowledge that the legal process is arduous, and can be indefinitely deferred. And so, the Supreme Court has stated that the government can take no more than one month for legal opinion, and three months after that to decide on the sanction. After the four months pass, it will be assumed that the sanction is granted.

This ultimatum, that "sanction would be deemed to be granted if the competent authority fails to take a decision within a period of four months", is the troubling underside of the judgment. Important as it is to minimise deliberate official inaction, it is equally unrealistic to mandate an automatic sanction within a few months each case is different, and the time taken to weigh the decision is bound to be different too. The court, especially, should know the impracticality of imposing a deadline on these decisions, given its record of backlog despite the best intentions. With all due respect, judicial pendency arguably contributes to the corrupt getting away, as much as a laggardly bureaucracy does. If the government is to be handed a stopwatch to decide on matters of corruption, what stops the demand and there has been such a demand in the Lokpal discourse to ask for a deadline for courts to decide as well? The court's sense of urgency is justifiable, not its suggestion to Parliament.

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