New Delhi: The way judges are named to the Supreme Court and high courts is set to undergo a radical overhaul after the government scored a political victory on Thursday by ensuring the smooth passage of the National Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, 2014, that proposes to replace the collegium system with a six-member panel.
On the last day of the more than one-month-long budget session, the Rajya Sabha approved draft legislation to amend the Constitution in order to set up the appointments commission. The Bill had been cleared by the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government accepted a crucial amendment sought by the opposition Congress party.
The Constitution amendment Bill will have to get approval from at least 15 state assemblies and the President before coming into force. The process may take as long as eight months.
The judicial appointments commission was a BJP election pledge.
Although the executive had a role in the appointment of judges to higher courts till 1993, since then judges have been appointed by a collegium of Supreme Court judges. The new proposal vests that responsibility with a committee of six members—the Chief Justice of India (CJI), two judges of the Supreme Court, the law minister, and two eminent persons chosen by the CJI, Prime Minister and the leader of opposition or the leader of the largest party in the Lok Sabha.
Jurist Fali S. Nariman, however, slammed the move, saying the two Bills hit at the root of judicial independence and may even be struck down by the Supreme Court. Nariman said he and many other lawyers will challenge the legislation in the Supreme Court. “...the independence of the judiciary is now the cornerstone of the Constitution. And anything that is done which damages it is anathema and the people who decide are the judges of the Supreme Court," he told Karan Thapar on Headlines Today television channel.
Senior lawyer K.K. Venugopal said, “The question is whether it violates the basic structure of the Constitution. According to me, as against the original provision which provided that the executive, that is the President, made the appointments in consultation with the CJI, the present commission gives the judiciary a far greater voice as the CJI presides over the commission along with two judges of the Supreme Court and additionally two independent members. Therefore, the amendment to the Constitution setting up the National Judicial Appointment Commission will not violate the basic structure of the Constitution."
As it wound down, the first Parliament session of the BJP-led government was seen as a success in terms of the actual hours of sitting, the debates and business transacted. But it was also a mixed bag in that the government was unable to push through a key piece of economic reform legislation, the insurance Bill, in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA is in minority, on Thursday.
Parliament met for the second time after the 16th Lok Sabha was constituted with the BJP enjoying a clear majority, having won 282 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha. No single party had secured a majority on its own since 1984.
However, this did not reduce political tensions inside Parliament. Both houses saw unruly scenes and repeated adjournments over allegations that West Bengal had been neglected in the railway budget and protests over an increase in the incidence of communal violence.
But the government expressed satisfaction. “On the whole, this first budget session of our government has been satisfactory," parliamentary affairs minister M. Venkaiah Naidu told the press after the session concluded.
Apart from debates on the general budget and the railway budget, Parliament discussed inflation, flood and drought, the reorganization of Andhra Pradesh, violence in the Gaza strip and atrocities against women. There were also discussions on efforts by the government to rescue Indians stranded in West Asia.
According to PRS Legislative Research, the Lok Sabha sat for more than the available sitting time and its productivity was 104%, while the Rajya Sabha’s record was 99%. Twenty Bills were introduced, and a dozen were passed by both houses.
President Pranab Mukherjee, in his speech on the eve of the country’s 68th Independence Day, advised: “Should not Parliament again become the great hall of sombre thought and well-debated legislation?"
But others pointed out that it was the first major session and many of the members in the new Lok Sabha are first timers. “The disruptions have been reduced because those who can disrupt are less in number and the NDA has a clear majority. The quality of the debate has been going down because of the general decadence in our society," said Bidyut Chakraborty, professor of political science at Delhi university. He added: “But I am not very pessimistic. The quality of MPs who are elected has improved and there is a possibility that the nature of the debate could be changed."
Naidu pointed out: “One particular reality of the composition of Parliament being that the ruling coalition is in minority in the Rajya Sabha, it offered both an opportunity and challenges in different ways to different political coalitions...For the ruling coalition, it offered a challenge of working with the majority opposition and for the opposition, the opportunity of joining hands with the government rising above political considerations for the good of the nation, particularly, when the economy is not in a good shape."
Mint’s Shreeja Sen and PTI contributed to this story.