Silence reigns in political corridors about the surprise reshuffle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s council of ministers this morning. BJP leaders who are otherwise vocal, feigned ignorance when asked why Kiren Rijiju has been demoted.
There is no clear answer why Mr Rijiju — one of the most prominent faces of the Modi government — has been completely sidelined and shunted from the high-profile Law and Justice ministry to a low-key Earth Science ministry.
Senior party leaders, on condition of anonymity, said yesterday, Mr Rijiju was part of a high-profile meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where other senior ministers were also present. He seemed to have no idea that within 24 hours, he would lose the portfolio, they claimed.
Mr Rijiju’s predecessor, Ravi Shankar Prasad, was removed from the law ministry in another sudden decision. The leader — who also handled the IT and Electronics ministry — was perceived as being responsible for mishandling a bitter war of words with Twitter, which was seen to have dented the country’s image abroad.
The other key minister removed at the time, Harshvardhan, was seen to have mishandled the health portfolio at the height of the Covid pandemic.
But when Mr Rijiju was picked to replace Ravi Shankar Prasad – a veteran lawyer — in July 2021, it raised eyebrows. Though a law graduate from Delhi University, Mr Rijiju had hardly been a practising lawyer. He had no connection with judges or lawyers.
Many speculated it was the primary reason for his appointment and the same reason why Arjun Ram Meghwal has been chosen to succeed him.
Over the last year, Mr Rijiju’s tenure became dotted with controversies, with the minister taking the judiciary head on over various issues.
He was vocal with his objections to the Collegium system of appointing judges – in keeping with the government’s claim to be part of the process. But his remark – calling the system opaque and alien to the constitution — antagonizing many in legal circles.
His other comments had equally drawn criticism – like the one accusing retired judges of being part of “anti-India” forces and alleging loopholes in the collegium system.
After his statement on judges, more than 300 lawyers of the Supreme Court and various high courts had written a strongly-worded statement condemning it.
A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court expressed anguish over Mr Rijiju’s statement where he said the government was not giving sanctions to the appointment of judges since the National Judicial Appointments Bill has not been approved.
In January, the minister had written to Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud suggesting the inclusion of a government nominee in the decision-making process for shortlisting of judges.
He also suggested that the Supreme Court should only hear cases which are relevant and appropriate for a constitutional court and not “bail applications and frivolous PILs”. The comment, coming as the pendency of cases remain high, irked many.
This week, the Supreme Court rejected a Public Interest Litigation, requesting the court to take action against Kiren Rijiju and Vice President and Chairman of Rajya Sabha Jagdeep Dhankhar for their remarks against the judiciary. The same appeal was dismissed earlier by the Bombay High Court.
While the exact reason behind his removal will emerge in time, Mr Rijiju will be remembered as an unconventional Law Minister who practically set the judiciary and the executive on a collision course.
(Akhilesh Sharma is Executive Editor & Anchor, String Reveals India)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.