The announcement from the Rashtrapati Bhavan this morning, notifying the shifting of cabinet minister Kiren Rijiju from the Union law ministry to the Ministry of Earth Sciences is a huge surprise primarily because of its timing.
The announcement says that the President of India, Droupadi Murmu, as advised by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has assigned the portfolio of Ministry of Earth Sciences to Kiren Rijiju, while assigning the independent charge as Minister of State in the Ministry of Law and Justice to Arjun Ram Meghwal, in addition to his existing portfolios, in place of Rijiju.
Meghwal is currently the Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and Culture.
Rijiju has, notably, made far too many headlines in recent months regarding the equations between the government and the judiciary. These have probably caused some embarrassment to the Union of India, which is the largest litigant before the Supreme Court and the various high courts. Many had expected that Rijiju’s tenure at the law ministry would be short-lived, but the exact time of his departure could not be speculated upon.
Rijiju’s predecessor, Ravi Shankar Prasad, was dropped from the Union Council of Ministers, in July 2021, when he was perceived as being responsible for mishandling a bitter war of words with Twitter, which could, in turn, be perceived as having dented the country’s international image.
Unlike Prasad, however, Rijiju was never a practising advocate, and unlike Prasad, Rijiju thus had no prior rapport with the senior judges of the Supreme Court. A former member of the Collegium had once told this writer that whenever there was disagreement about a Collegium recommendation between the Union government and the Collegium, the incumbent Chief Justice of India, who heads the Collegium, usually invited Prasad for tea in the Supreme Court. Issues were sorted out across the table .
Not so with Rijiju, who used his Twitter account, and interviews to the media, to openly convey his disagreements with the judiciary.
Members of the judiciary, therefore, considered 51-year-old minister as lacking maturity and knowledge about binding legal precedents. There were moments when the Attorney General for India, R. Venkataramani, had to cut a sorry figure before the Supreme Court. This recently happened when a division bench headed by a senior judge, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, questioned the government’s intransigence over delays in notifying the Collegium’s recommendations, and Rijiju’s inappropriate statements to the media about the limits of the court’s powers.
Rijiju’s recent comment about certain former Judges belonging to the “anti-India gang” drew widespread condemnation, including from former judges, civil servants, and senior advocates. Senior advocate K.V. Viswanathan, who has been recommended by the Collegium for appointment as a judge of the Supreme Court, wrote an article condemning the comment.
But the surprise at Rijiju’s exit from the law ministry is also because it has taken place when his political stock within the BJP was noticeably rising. At the recent meeting of the BJP’s National Executive, he moved the political resolution, a responsibility usually entrusted to powerful cabinet Ministers or party leaders.
Rijiju, representing West Arunachal Pradesh in the Lok Sabha, had once been adjudged the ‘best parliamentarian’ – with a 90% attendance – during the era of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He had briefly moved to the Congress after 2004, only to return to the BJP and win the 2014 general elections.
Rijiju has a degree in law from the Campus Law Centre, Delhi University.
His successor Meghwal, aged 69, too was awarded ‘best parliamentarian’ in 2013. Hailing from Rajasthan, Meghwal’s qualifications include an MA in Political Science, an LL.B and an MBA. He was also an IAS officer in the Rajasthan cadre, and is a prominent Scheduled Caste leader from the state.
As a junior minister in the Council of Ministers, Meghwal will now have to handle the current challenges facing the law ministry, along with his existing portfolios in parliamentary affairs and culture.