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All promises cannot be broken, court tells government

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By Sidharth Mishra

Judicial interventions are often decried by the governments of the day as judicial activism. Judicial activism has been described variously by those affected by it. Some say it to be a practice in the judiciary wherein judgments are delivered based on ‘personal opinions’ rather than on existing laws. The other view is that it’s a practice in judiciary of protecting or expanding individual rights through decisions that depart from established precedent or are independent of or in opposition to supposed constitutional or legislative intent.

Whatever the definition but for the citizens of this country facing, as the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana had recently put it, tyranny of electoral politics, judiciary has come to rescue many a times. The most recent examples being the direction given to the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand governments to suspend annual ‘kawad yatra’ and the reprimand to the Karala government for easing lockdown provisions for Eid prayers.
 
It’s in this context that a recent judgment of Delhi High Court is of much relevance. It may come to illustrate the tyrannical traits of electoral politics to a great extent. The order seeks to caution those holding public office that the promises made by them are not in individual capacity but as representative of the office and they are legally enforceable.
 
The judgment, by Justice Prathiba M Singh seeks to remind the political leaders of their duties preserved in the business of governance but forgotten in midst of political fracas. Good governance is judged by those being governed trusting the ability those who govern. This trust can be kept only if promises made are finally and legally sustainable.
 
The case at hand relates to a group of poor labourers petitioning the court that Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal should be asked to fulfil his promise of paying the house rent on their behalf as they were unable to pay it because of COVID-19 exigencies. Kejriwal did make that promise in March 2020 but did not pursue the matter further. 
 
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“The statements made by persons in power are trusted by the public who repose faith and believe in the same,” Justice Singh observed in the 89-page judgment delivered last week. The bench also directed the Delhi Government to frame a clear policy on payment of rents to affected persons within six weeks.
 
The judge used the term ‘promissory estoppel’ for promises made by the government officials, which are enforceable by law, even if made without formal consideration. It’s like this that a reliable promisor made a promise to a person, who in turn relied on that promise to work out future plans. With Kejriwal going back on the promise, the labourers now find themselves in a quandry.
 
Under a more stringent interpretation, the courts could stop a person holding public offices from making such assertions hereinafter. Justice Singh’s order has the potential of reigning in such political promises, which especially have financial implications for the people in general.
 
The aforementioned order in a way also upholds the spirit of Chief Justice Ramana’s observations, “The idea that people are the ultimate sovereign is also to be found in notions of human dignity and autonomy. A public discourse, that is both reasoned and reasonable, is to be seen as an inherent aspect of human dignity and hence essential to a properly functioning democracy.”   
 
It’s also to be understood that this order may not apply to a ‘political jumla’ – a promise made in course of electoral campaign, but only to ‘official jumla’ – a promise made by a public office. The order in a way also gives the message that the political arm of a government cannot remain perpetually in poll-campaign mode.
 
(The writer is an author and President, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice) 

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