By Frank Jack Daniel
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, faces accusations his government ran a campaign to block the appointment of a Supreme Court judge it believed was biased against it, fuelling a debate about judicial independence in the world's largest democracy.
Gopal Subramanium, a former solicitor-general who was invited in May to join the court, accused the government of undermining his appointment through malicious leaks to the media because of his involvement in murder cases brought against a key aide of Modi.
"(It is) the fear of independence and independent thinking," Subramanium told Reuters on Thursday, after withdrawing his candidacy through an open letter to the court on Wednesday. "The weakening of institutions is a serious concern."
He denies any wrongdoing, saying the stories were planted to turn public opinion and make it harder for the court to make him a judge. He said he withdrew to ensure there would not be a cloud over his name and to draw attention to the pressure being applied to the judiciary.
Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad declined to comment on the case when asked by reporters.
Modi thundered to electoral victory last month on a reputation for decisiveness, ousting the Congress party, under whose rule an economic boom had turned into the longest slump in growth since free market reforms in 1991.
Detractors call him autocratic, however, citing a clampdown on environmental activists such as Greenpeace and a number of police cases related to anti-Modi postings in social media. Amnesty International on Thursday said it deplored "a growing trend of intolerance towards dissent and criticism".
In a blog post on Thursday to mark his first month in office, Modi said he supported free speech. He did not mention any specific criticisms of him.
"Our democracy will not sustain if we can't guarantee freedom of speech and expression," Modi said, referring to the Emergency, a period of almost two years in the mid-1970s when Congress leader Indira Gandhi declared emergency rule and banned opposition groups, as one of India's darkest periods.
India's Supreme Court has a history of judicial activism that is often a nuisance for governments. During the last administration it took the government to task over corruption and human rights.
Since taking office, Modi's government has been criticised for seeking the resignation of state governors appointed by the last government, as well as quickly replacing or putting pressure on the heads of nominally autonomous bodies.
"By reducing these institutions to mere politics, we shrink them in the long run," Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research wrote in a column last week that expressed disappointment with Modi's approach.
In recent weeks, newspapers have run a series of stories based on leaked intelligence reports, including one suggesting that Subramanium had accepted membership of an expensive health club paid for by a defendant in a prominent case.
Subramanium has worked on some of the country's highest-profile and most sensitive terrorism and corruption cases. He represented the last government for several years as solicitor-general.
Before becoming prime minister, Modi headed the government of the state of Gujarat for 12 years. There, with the help of close aide Amit Shah, he successfully purged members of the rival Congress party from politically influential cooperatives and sporting bodies.
Shah, who was a key campaign manager during the general election and is widely tipped to become president of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, is fighting three charges of murder related to extra-judicial killings in Gujarat. He denies the charges and says they are politically motivated. [ID:nL3N0LO2NF]
Subramanium assisted the Supreme Court in the investigation that led to the charges against Shah and believes his role in the case led to a campaign against him.
"The events of the past few weeks have raised serious doubts in my mind as to the ability of the Executive Government to appreciate and respect the independence, integrity and glory of the judicial institution," he wrote in the letter.
Other members of the judiciary and activists also reacted angrily. Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde compared the situation to U.S. Democrats vilifying Robert Bork in 1987 to successfully end his nomination to the Supreme Court.
(Additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty; Editing by Andrew Roche)