The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued a formal criminal contempt notice against Congress president Rahul Gandhi for attributing the comment “chowkidar chor hai” to the court judgement of April 10, upholding the maintainability of the Rafale fighter aircraft deal case review petitions.
A Bench, led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, also ordered that the review petitions be listed along with the criminal contempt petition filed by BJP lawmaker Meenakshi Lekhi for Tuesday next (April 30).
The issuance of the formal contempt notice seems to be triggered by a brief exchange among Ms. Lekhi’s lawyer, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi; the CJI; and senior advocate A.M. Singhvi for Mr. Gandhi.
Mr. Rohatgi began by saying that Mr. Gandhi had not really apologised for his comment and he had only paid a mere “lip service” and included the word “regret” in brackets somewhere inside his 19-page response to the criminal contempt petition.
“There is no apology. He has just said ‘I regret’ in brackets… he is saying he had not even read the Supreme Court order before making the comment that the Supreme Court said the Prime Minister is a ‘chor’. This is how responsible the president of a 130-year-old party is before making a statement,” Mr. Rohatgi submitted.
“But will we use word ‘chowkidar’ in our orders?” Chief Justice Gogoi asked.
Mr. Rohatgi said the Congress president was merely trying to drag the Court into a “political game”.
‘Response filed in nature of an explanation’
In his turn, Mr. Singhvi said the response was filed in the nature of an explanation. Mr. Rohatgi had to decide if he is speaking from a “political pulpit or in the Supreme Court”. The court had only asked Mr. Gandhi to file an explanation. There was no formal notice issued against him in the case.
Chief Justice Gogoi cut in on Mr. Singhvi’s submission, saying, “We can cure that by issuing a notice now itself… You are pointing out that we have forgotten to issue notice… Ok, we will issue notice.”
Mr. Singhvi continued that it was “inconceivable” to even think that the Court would say “chowkidar chor hai”. Mr. Gandhi had been “candid and brave” to say that he juxtaposed a political slogan with a judicial proceeding in the heat of the political campaigning. “To err is human, to regret is divine… They are only trying to flog a political horse till the elections are over,” he said.
Mr. Singhvi pointed out to Mr. Gandhi’s response that contains a list of instances in which BJP leaders and Ministers, including the Prime Minister, had attributed their statements to the Supreme Court. “They said the Supreme Court has given a clean chit to Rafale deal… When did the Supreme Court give a clean chit to Rafale?” he asked.
This prompted the Bench to list the Rafale review petitions along with the contempt plea case.
“We will take it together with this,” the Chief Justice remarked.
Mr. Gandhi, in his written response, had said the “chowkidar chor hai” comment was said in an atmosphere of vindication of the Court deciding to reopen the Rafale case despite government efforts to shut out new facts and documents published on the purchase of 36 jets.
The Congress chief regretted how the political slogan unfortunately got “juxtaposed and intermingled” with the April 10 decision of the Court to review the Rafale case. The review petitions were filed against the judgement of December 14 upholding the Rafale jets’ deal.
Mr. Gandhi said the comment was made in a purely political context to counter the “misinformation campaign” that the Court gave the government a clean chit on December 14.
He had given an undertaking that he would not, in future, attribute statements to the Supreme Court.
Ms. Lekhi had accused him of misrepresenting the court proceedings by attributing the comment to the Court, and thus, causing prejudice in people’s minds against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.