New Delhi: Under attack for accepting the Modi government’s offer of a Rajya Sabha seat upon retiring as chief justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi had said in March 2020 that his presence in parliament would be “an opportunity to project the views of the judiciary before the legislature and vice versa.”
The Bar Council of India, which defended Gogoi’s controversial nomination, had also struck a similar note at the time:
“We see it as a bridge between the Legislature and Judiciary. This, in fact, would be an ideal opportunity to portray the first hand views of the judiciary before the law makers and vis-a-versa.”
However, with his third year as a parliamentarian coming to a close soon, the former CJI’s record as a parliamentarian provides scant evidence that he has projected views of any kind in the house. And if he was meant to be a bridge, his performance has clearly been as shaky as the one at Morbi.
He is barely seen in parliament, he has not taken part in any debate, and his attendance during the whole of his tenure to date has been 24%. The average attendance rate of parliamentarians who have been in the house as long as him is 79%. These figures are from the performance index maintained by PRS Legislative Research, the think-tank on legislative procedures.
Last December, Gogoi defended his poor attendance record, telling a television channel that as an MP, he goes to parliament when he feels like it. He is not governed by a party whip, being a nominated member, which is why, he said, “I go at my choice and come out at my choice”.
Judging by his performance in every metric used to measure an MP’s role in parliament, the ‘choice’ made by the former CJI is clearly to do little or nothing.
Nominated in March 2020, the only waves Gogoi made in parliament came while he was taking his oath. He was booed by the opposition, which called his appointment a ‘disgrace’.
After retirement from the Supreme Court in November 2019, Gogoi was seen to have got the cushy sinecure as reward for the controversial ‘Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid’ judgment, which the judge first agreed to ‘fast track’ at the Modi government’s insistence. The bench he led ended up handing the site where the illegally demolished Babri Masjid had stood for centuries to the very forces who were directly or indirectly linked to that crime.
So lackadaisical has been the former judge’s performance in the Rajya Sabha that he has not even bothered to deliver a maiden speech – a ritual seen as an initiation ceremony of sorts in parliament.
His statement – that he would have been better off in terms of pay and emoluments had he been chairman of a tribunal – earned him a privilege motion moved by Trinamool Congress MPs Mausam Noor and Jawhar Sircar. The MPs accused Gogoi of insulting the house. Sources say the matter was examined by the Rajya Sabha legal team which concluded the TMC stand was not tenable as Gogoi never meant to insult the house. The matter ultimately never went to the privileges committee.
Noor told The Wire, “I really don’t know what happened to that motion. They never got back to us.”
While calls and texts to Gogoi went unanswered, what explains the hostility of the house to him, in his own words as per past interviews, is that “the members got back at him because of how he dealt with them in court.”
On the all important job of highlighting issues of public concern by asking questions of the government, Gogoi’s record in the Rajya Sabha is ‘zero questions asked’ so far. On an average, MPs who have spent the same time in the RS as Gogoi asked 96.59 questions.
To be fair to the former judge, despite the hooting and jeering when he first entered the house, Gogoi’s attendance was 67% in the Budget session of 2020 against 4% the next year but that was mainly because Gogoi too was hit by the pandemic.
Apart from attending house sessions, MPs are also members of various parliamentary committees where they are expected to attend and discuss issues of public interest in greater detail. But here too, Gogoi’s record has been underwhelming.
The former CJI is a member of the Standing Committee on External Affairs and was for nine months a part of the Communications and Information Technology Committee. Gogoi had diligently attended sittings of the External Affairs Committee all through 2020 but faded out by 2021. He was seen attending meetings on July 29, 2020, August 11, 2020, and those on September 7 and 8, 2020. October 19, 20 and 28 again saw Gogoi in attendance. He attended on July 7, 2021, too.
Interestingly, in the eight months that he was in the standing committee on communications and IT (C&IT), from September 2021 to May 2022, Gogoi did not attend a single meeting, as per Rajya Sabha committee records.
Among the agenda items he skipped at the crucial committee were five sessions on a key subject – ‘Safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms including special emphasis on women security in the digital space’.
Renominated to the external affairs committee in September 2022, Gogoi has skipped all seven meetings held so far.
Fellow parliamentarians point out that there have been several Bills where the former CJI’s erudition would have helped. A case in point were the three farm laws – now scrapped – and whether the Union government had the powers to formulate laws on subjects that were outside its purview, agriculture being a state subject.
Fellow nominated member, now retired, Swapan Dasgupta, says, “Perhaps because he had a very hostile initiation, Gogoi is now reluctant to attend. He probably feels unwelcome.”
Dasgupta, however, adds that if nominated members do not speak up in parliament, the very purpose of nominating them is defeated. “But why just nominated members?” he asks, “what about the others?”
Dasgupta’s own record as a parliamentarian is exemplary. He had a 90% attendance record and took part in as many as 50 debates.
While others in the legal profession like Mahesh Jethmalani have been seen to be attending the house regularly (96% attendance), MPs Kapil Sibal (53% attendance) and Abhishek Manu Singhvi (42%) have some catching up to do, though they have both asked lots of questions and taken part in debates.
If a hostile house is what daunts Gogoi, perhaps he would do well to heed his own words of 2019: “There is a viewpoint that post-retirement appointment is itself a scar on judicial independence of the judiciary.”