The Congress stood isolated in Lok Sabha Tuesday when the government acknowledged that a Supreme Court collegium recommended extension for a controversial judge in Tamil Nadu during UPA rule after the then Prime Minister’s Office and the Department of Justice inquired about his case.
Informing Lok Sabha that “the clock cannot be put back”, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad underlined the “imperative need to improve the system of appointment” of judges and how keen the government was to ensure the appointment of a National Judicial Commission System.
The loneliness of the 44-member Congress, staring at rebellion in the states after the rout in the Lok Sabha elections, was evident when no party backed Mallikarjun Kharge’s attempts to block the government from responding to an AIADMK clamour for answers. The AIADMK wanted to know whether the collegium had been forced — at the behest of an ally of the then UPA government — to accommodate the judge against whom there was an “adverse” report.
The AIADMK aggression only highlighted what has not gone unnoticed in the new House. The Congress looks weary, weak, almost friendless, a pale shadow of its old self, finding it hard to be the opposition pivot. From the start of the budget session, regional parties opposed to the government have been more vocal, more energetic in seeking answers, drawing the attention of the House — with or without Congress support.
On Tuesday, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were not in the House when the matter was raised the moment Zero Hour began.
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AIADMK leader M Thambidurai said a former Law Minister had confirmed that DMK ministers and MPs came to his chamber and put pressure on him to confirm the appointment of the judge. Members of the AIADMK, who number 37, rose as one, some moving into the aisle as their leader sought a statement from the Law Minister.
“In the Parliament, we discuss that there must not be interference with the judiciary… but it is a very clear case that DMK ministers and MPs approached the minister and interfered,” Thambidurai said.
As AIADMK MPs broke into a chorus and began moving towards the well, Speaker Sumitra Mahajan said: “You go to your seats please. If the minister is ready to speak, I am not objecting.”
At this, Kharge raised the point-of-order issue: “Yesterday, honourable members raised a point of order and you had given a ruling on this. As per the rule, it should not be raised or discussed again… You are at liberty to permit it. But once you have given a ruling on any issue, can it be taken up again and the same thing discussed often?”
Many opposition MPs waved Kharge down and looked in the direction of the treasury benches for the reply from the Law Minister. The Speaker too turned to Kharge: “I had only said there can be no point of order during Zero Hour. That was my ruling… If the minister wants to reply, I cannot stop it.”
His point of order not taken, Kharge sat down.
In his reply to what he called “a sensitive issue”, Ravi Shankar Prasad said: “The judge in question was appointed in 2003. Subsequently, the collegium had certain reservations. They sought certain inquiries. I do not wish to go into the details of this. It will not be proper for me to go into this. Subsequently, a decision was taken that his case need not be confirmed. But in June 2006, a clarification was sought from the then PMO as to why his case was not being processed. Again the matter was considered by the collegium and the collegium, in its collective wisdom, took a call that he need not be recommended at all… again a note went from the then Department of Justice with the approval of the then Law Minister… Thereafter, a call was taken by the collegium that his case can be considered for some extension and he was made permanent.”
Kharge rose again, this time Saugata Roy of the Trinamool Congress behind him. Only to be told by the Speaker that they could not interrupt repeatedly and that the minister should be allowed to complete what he was saying.
But Kharge persisted, turning to Article 121 of the Constitution which refers to restriction on discussion in Parliament. At this, the Speaker said nothing of what Kharge was saying should be recorded since no discussion was underway.
With no one backing him, Kharge sat down. The minister continued and the AIADMK MPs played the opposition. Not satisfied with the government’s response, they charged into the well and forced adjournment of the House well before lunch. Kharge and the Congress could only watch.