Narendra Modi is big on claiming historic firsts, even if some do not survive a vigorous fact-check. On November 25, however, he is believed to have indulged in a genuine first – visiting the Supreme Court, something no prime minister is known to have done in the 60 years since the court’s current premises were inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru. And then, according to people present, he went up step further, taking Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi by surprise by asking if he could see Court No. 1, which the CJI presides over.
That room is currently where key cases involving the Narendra Modi government are to be adjudicated – ranging from the allegation of corruption in the Rafale deal levelled by former ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and advocate Prashant Bhushan, to the legality of the midnight coup Modi and his top advisers staged in the Central Bureau of Investigation in October. The court has reserved judgment on the Rafale issue and hearings on the CBI matter will conclude soon.
Chief Justice Gogoi had invited the prime minister to attend a dinner he hosted on November 25 for judges from the BIMSTEC countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand.
Modi reached the Supreme Court premises after 8 pm. Modi reportedly chatted with several of the judges over dinner. By the time 9:30 pm came around – the scheduled time for the dinner to end – his security began looking at their watches. However, sources told The Wire the prime minister was in no mood to call it a night.
This is when he asked Gogoi for a tour of his court room, people present have said. Perhaps he wanted to see the ‘battlefield’ where his government could suffer a political setback, or more benignly, where his friend, finance minister Arun Jaitley, used to argue in his avatar as a Supreme Court lawyer.
When Modi made his request, a frantic search for security attendants was reportedly made, keys rustled up and lights put on after a perplexed but courteous Gogoi told his guest that he would take him to the room.
Modi, sources told The Wire, walked up to the court room and sat on one of front row seats, where senior counsel sit and rise for arguments. He then made numerous inquiries about the traditions of Court No. 1. The CJI reportedly asked if he would care for a cup of tea, and Modi agreed. He left the court after 10 pm.
Throughout his political career, first as chief minister of Gujarat and now as prime minister, several matters related to his role and rule have come up in the Supreme Court. Even now, Zakia Jafri’s petition seeking Modi’s prosecution for the communal killings which shook Gujarat in 2002 is before the apex court, though before a bench other than the CJI’s.