In August last year, when the Parliament debated and passed the Constitutional (121st) Amendment Bill, except for one dissenting voice, there was complete unanimity in the political class on the issue of taking away the power of appointing judges to the higher judiciary from the judiciary.
While there were some parties that voiced opposition to some clauses of the two Bills — the Constitution (121st) Amendment Bill and the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Bill — introduced by then Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, when it came to actually voting against the Bills, all refrained from doing so.
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On August 14, only expelled BJP Rajya Sabha MP Ram Jethmalani opposed the Bill in totality and abstained from voting, while 179 Rajya Sabha MPs voted in its favour. A day earlier, in the Lok Sabha, 367 MPs voted for the Bill while nobody voted against it. Many members absented themselves from the House at the time of voting.
But, if in August last year, both the BJP and Congress were united in their criticism of the collegium system of appointment to higher judiciary — with the Congress only pressing for one amendment to its Bill which was carried out — a lot has changed a year later.
That the Congress voted with the government last year was interesting also because then Law Minister Kapil Sibal had questioned the Bill on the issue of “independence of the judiciary”. Sibal had also announced that he would move the Supreme Court challenging the Act, but didn’t do so citing ethical issues as he had dealt with the issue as law minister.
The Congress had supported the NJAC Bill in the Lok Sabha after the government moved an official amendment to drop the word “unanimous” from a clause that said all members of the commission would have to agree to a judge’s appointment if the President sent back the name for reconsideration. Today, another UPA Law Minister, Ashwani Kumar, described ruling as a “watershed moment in the evolution of our constitutional jurisprudence and political democracy”.
When the Bills were debated by the two Houses, among the issues that were flagged by MPs were: lack of transparency in the collegium system, lack of accountability in higher judiciary, lack of adequate representation of SCs, STs, OBCs and women in higher judiciary, pendency of cases and, finally, attempts by judiciary to encroach on the domain of the Executive and legislation.
The Congress reacted cautiously to the verdict Friday, saying that though the collegium system was “shrouded in secrecy”, the judgment should not be viewed as a confrontation between Parliament and the judiciary.