After more than five years as minister for law and justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad leaves a legacy for successor Kiren Rijiju that began with enactment of the controversial National Judicial Appointments Commission and covered a spectrum including Ayodhya and Rafale cases.
Prasad’s tenure, from July, 2016 to July, 2021 in addition to holding the portfolio from May 2014 till November 2014, was second only to legendary senior advocate Ashok Sen, who was law minister from May 1957 till January 1966. Prasad would now surely resume his lucrative practice in the court after ministership.
Prasad’s innings as law minister under PM Narendra Modi in 2014 began with the signature reform legislation in NJAC, which intended to replace the collegium system of judges selecting candidates for appointment as judges, a system which had been frowned upon by both judiciary and lawyers as well as public as opaque though largely considered as a process independent of the executive.
But the legislation, passed unanimously by Parliament, and ratified by more than 20 states, was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2015, which felt that presence of the law minister in the judges’ appointment commission would cripple judicial independence, appointments being intrinsic to it.
In the succeeding year, friction between the judiciary and executive became apparent with government through the law ministry objecting to several recommendations for appointment of judges on one or the other grounds. And yet, when questioned both administratively and judicially, by the Supreme Court for the seemingly vengeful stalling of appointments, Prasad rolled out statistics to dispel the perception. He said in 2016, the Centre appointed a record 126 HC judges against a yearly average of 70-80 judges in the past decade.
A landmark was the resolution of the dispute over the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land at Ayodhya. A five-judge bench unanimously awarded the title of the land to the Hindus, while giving an alternative five acre plot to Muslims to build a mosque.
His tenure also saw the law ministry handling several litigational controversies including Rafale purchase deal, spat between the CBI Director and Special Director and the politically sensitive National Herald case. But, he always took pride in the repealing of nearly 1,500 archaic laws that had been clogging systems for decades.
His tenure also saw the setting up of the National Judicial Data Grid and digitisation of 15,000 trial courts.