Home / Politics / Policy /  Cabinet signs off on move to protect convicted lawmakers

New Delhi: The Union cabinet on Thursday moved to overrule a recent Supreme Court ruling that bars lawmakers convicted of a crime and jailed persons from contesting elections, but deferred a plan to overhaul the nation’s direct tax regime.

At the same time, it advanced on a piece of controversial legislation seeking to end the discretion of the judiciary to decide the appointments to various courts—a move that could potentially worsen relations between the executive and the judiciary.

The cabinet also signed off on fresh amendments to the pending food security legislation which it hopes will fend off political opposition to the Bill. Under the proposed law, some states could stand to see a reduction in their allocation of foodgrains—now new safeguards will be inserted to ensure against the anomaly.

However, the move to override the apex court’s ruling on appointments is fraught with difficulty, particularly given the low public opinion of politicians in the face of corruption charges and a raft of other recent scandals.

The cabinet approved amendments to the Representation of People’s Act (RPA) to make it possible for lawmakers to retain their legislative membership in spite of being convicted for a criminal offence. A proviso is expected to be added to sub-section (4) of section 8 of the RPA making it clear that the convicted member shall continue to take part in proceedings of Parliament or state Legislature but they shall neither be entitled to vote nor draw salary or allowances until the appeal or revision is finally decided in court.

The apex court had in July struck down a provision in the RPA that allows convicted lawmakers a three-month window for appeals, which meant lawmakers would have to quit immediately if convicted, irrespective of the scope for an appeal.

The Supreme Court’s order also barred convicted lawmakers from contesting elections or casting their vote from jail. However, the government decided to overturn this too by amending the RPA, which will shield the candidates from being disqualified to contest elections.

At an all-party meeting held before the monsoon session began, leaders had expressed concern over the Supreme Court’s ruling and had urged the government to take steps to maintain the supremacy of Parliament. Leaders of all parties had unanimously asked the government to bring amendments to the RPA.

Though the cabinet was expected to consider the Direct Taxes Code (DTC) Bill that seeks to overhaul the over five decades old income tax law, it was deferred as some ministers wanted changes.

Before the cabinet met on Thursday, finance minister P. Chidambaram told reporters that the DTC Bill is on the agenda of the cabinet but was non-committal on whether the cabinet would clear it. “It is a new Bill. Let’s see what the other members of the cabinet think about it," he told a hurriedly-called press conference.

The cabinet also approved the food ministry’s proposal to protect the current allocation of foodgrains to states in the event of implementation of the national food security Bill. Under the current draft of the Bill, 17 states would have been allocated a higher quantity of foodgrains while 18 would see their allocations reduced.

“The difference would have been 33.3 lakh tonnes. The finance ministry was of the view that even if the allocation is protected, the price of additional grains should be linked to minimum support price. The additional cost to protect the states’ share will be 5,094 crore. In today’s cabinet meeting, the government decided to fund this additional expenditure," said an official who is familiar with the development.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is desperate to pass the food security Bill in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament as it believes it has enormous electoral appeal. However, some states such as Odisha have objected to it arguing it will bring down its foodgrain allocation.

In another significant decision, the cabinet also gave its approval to another Bill which seeks to scrap the collegium system of appointing judges to the Supreme Court and high courts. The draft law seeks to replace the collegium system with a Judicial Appointments Commission that would appoint judges to the Supreme Court and the 24 high courts of the land.

Under the proposal, which has been opposed by the judiciary, the government would set up a panel headed by the Chief Justice of India to appoint and transfer senior judges. The other members of the proposed Commission would be two judges of the Supreme Court, the law minister, two eminent persons and Secretary (Justice) in the law ministry as Member Secretary. The law ministry has been pushing the proposal, which will require a Constitutional amendment, but some sections in the government as well as judiciary have reservations over some of its provisions.

Constitutional expert and senior lawyer K. K. Venugopal welcomed the development. “I am glad that this Bill is being moved. In no other country in the world has the executive been excluded totally from the appointment process for the members of the higher judiciary. It is thus necessary that the collegium be replaced by a commission... This would ensure more objectivity in the selection of the judges of the higher judiciary..," he said.

Mint’s Ragini Verma, Monalisa and PTI contributed to this story.

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