Delhi Services Bill debate in RS stood out for two people – Manmohan Singh, Ranjan Gogoi
A wheelchair-bound Singh, who now rarely steps out of his residence owing to his advancing years and failing health, made a quiet entry into the Rajya Sabha towards the last two hours of the discussion. Photo: Twitter

Delhi Services Bill debate in RS stood out for two people – Manmohan Singh, Ranjan Gogoi

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Among the several highlights of Monday’s marathon discussion in the Rajya Sabha over the controversial Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2023 – popularly, the Delhi Services Bill – there were, arguably, two that stood out.

A session of memorable firsts

The debate saw the 90-year-old former prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh (he turns 91 next month), attend the proceedings to abide by the whip his party, the Congress, had issued to its MPs to be present in the Rajya Sabha to vote against the Bill, which the Opposition’s INDIA coalition dubbed as “an assault on the Constitution and cooperative federalism”. In stark contrast, the discussion will also be remembered for former chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi’s maiden speech as a member of the Rajya Sabha or, more importantly, for his slyly made submission that “the doctrine of the basic structure of the Constitution has a debatable, very debatable jurisprudential basis”.

Also read: Parliament passes Delhi Services Bill; ‘black day for democracy,’ says Kejriwal

If the ailing Singh’s presence in the House was a tragic apotheosis of the vicious cost that a life in politics can often extract, Gogoi’s 10-minute intervention stood out for a Machiavellian flourish that would have, arguably, left the ruling BJP highly pleased.

Singh, who now rarely steps out of his residence owing to his advancing years and failing health, made a quiet entry into the Rajya Sabha towards the last two hours of the discussion. Confined to a wheelchair parked at the rear aisle of the House (former prime ministers who are members of either House of Parliament are otherwise designated a seat in the first row), he heard Union home minister Amit Shah’s caustic and election-driven reply to the discussion.

Manmohan Singh, an epitome of commitment

Since the INDIA constituents wanted a division of votes polled in favour and against the Bill, the former prime minister had to wait in the House till around 9.50 PM. The Bill had been put to a vote at around 9.30 PM. However, since the automatic vote registration machine in the Rajya Sabha wasn’t functioning, votes had to be cast through paper slips and the process of voting and counting the Ayes and Noes got delayed by nearly half an hour.

Though Singh did not make an intervention during the discussion, his presence in the House was hailed by leaders across the Opposition spectrum as a testament of his commitment to parliamentary democracy, upholding India’s Constitution and, of course, as a member of the Congress, also to his party’s command.

“Had he decided to take a leave of absence, no one would have objected but by attending the House and that too for a vote that everyone knew would go the government’s way; he showed yet again how unwavering his commitment is towards the Constitution, the Parliament and also to his party. His presence in the House should shame those who are in power today and are hell bent on subverting the Constitution, all conventions of parliamentary democracy… Dr Singh had once said that history will judge him more kindly and those words rang loud today,” Congress MP Pramod Tiwari told The Federal.

Yet, what seemed like a cruel irony was the applause that the former prime minister received from at least some members of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), an outfit that, in more ways than one, contributed enormously to the grossly uncharitable appraisal of Dr Singh during the final years of his UPA-II government. “Today, in the Rajya Sabha, Dr Manmohan Singh stood as a beacon of integrity and came especially to vote against the black ordinance. His unwavering commitment to democracy and the constitution is a profound inspiration. My heartfelt gratitude goes out to him for his invaluable support. Thank you, sir,” AAP MP Raghav Chaddha posted on X.

Though the Delhi Services Bill raised pertinent and immensely consequential questions of constitutionality, it is no secret that the debate around the legislation had largely been whittled down to an AAP versus BJP fight. “That Singh, who in the aftermath of Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement and the AAP’s political foray was repeatedly slandered by Arvind Kejriwal and other AAP members, came to the Rajya Sabha despite his poor health and voted against the Bill should force Kejriwal to introspect… they (AAP leaders) should express remorse and apologise to Singh for the lies they spread about him and our government,” a senior Congress MP told The Federal, adding that though Chaddha had expressed his gratitude for the former prime minister, the Delhi chief minister had “sadly refused to extend the same courtesy”.

Also read: Delhi Services Bill brought to stop encroachment on Centre’s rights: Amit Shah

Gogoi’s controversial speech

While Singh’s presence in the Rajya Sabha drew widespread praise, the other highlight of Tuesday’s discussion, Gogoi’s speech, came in for strong criticism from the Opposition. More importantly, it triggered speculations on whether Gogoi’s comment on the “debatable jurisprudential basis” of the Basic Structure Doctrine was just an off-the-cuff remark or an unwitting slip about a more sinister agenda of the BJP.

“What he said about the Basic Structure Doctrine is very, very dangerous. How is it that this man (Gogoi) who never bothered to utter a word in the Rajya Sabha in the three and a half years since he became a member of the House, never thought it necessary to speak even when issues directly linked with the judiciary were being discussed, decides to speak during this discussion and conveniently slips in a line that essentially raises questions on the legality of historically the most important judgment ever given by the Supreme Court regarding our Constitution. We know that the BJP has, for a long time, had a problem with the Basic Structure Doctrine because it includes federalism, secularism and other pledges in the constitution which the BJP-RSS covertly or overtly try to undermine whenever and wherever they are in power,” a senior Opposition MP told The Federal.

A livid Congress demanded that Union law minister Arjun Ram Meghwal “must categorically oppose” Gogoi’s views on the Basic Structure Doctrine “or it will be clear that the BJP has now started a process to destroy core tenets of our Constitution”.

Congress MP and AICC general secretary (organisation), KC Venugopal posted on X, “Is this the BJP’s trick to begin the full-fledged dismantling of the Constitution of India? Does it think that democracy, equality, secularism, federalism, judicial independence are all ‘debatable’ ideas? Not surprising that those who have no regard for constitutional principles are now propping up a former CJI with a ‘debatable’ track record to begin their attack on the Constitution through this very dangerous throwaway line… What is Mr. Gogoi’s argument? Is he saying that there is nothing called the basic structure that should be protected?”

Also read: Delhi Services Bill passed in Lok Sabha; Opposition walks out

A hugely polarising figure among not just the political brass but also within the legal fraternity and the civil society owing to his tenure as the CJI that continues to be widely slammed as one that saw the Supreme Court take a palpably pro-government stance, Gogoi’s presence in the Rajya Sabha has always riled the Opposition.

On Monday too, four women MPs – Jaya Bachchan, Priyanka Chaturvedi, Sushmita Dev and Vandana Chavan – walked out of the Rajya Sabha briefly in protest against Gogoi’s presence in the House even before he could make his intervention in support of the controversial Delhi Services Bill.

Various Opposition MPs, particularly women, have consistently been critical of Gogoi’s membership of the Rajya Sabha in light of the allegations of sexual harassment that had been levelled against him by a Supreme Court staffer during his tenure as the CJI. Though Gogoi denied the charges, the manner in which the Supreme Court enquired into the allegations made against him before giving the complaint a quiet burial has continued to be a source of consternation among Opposition MPs and many women’s rights activists.

Gogoi’s record as a parliamentarian too has been severely criticised. In the over three years since he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the President of India, Gogoi, mostly kept away from proceedings of the House whenever Parliament was in session. Even when he did decide to attend the sittings, admittedly more frequently over the past year, Gogoi chose to sit through them as a mute spectator.

On Monday, when he spoke in defence of the legislation, none in the Opposition were surprised but his comments about the jurisprudential basis of the Basic Structure Doctrine and his rebuttal of the Opposition’s charges about the Delhi Services Bill being arbitrary – “the law may not be to be my liking but that does not make it arbitrary,” he said – triggered an outrage.

Also read: AAP opposition to Delhi services bill aimed at hiding corruption: Amit Shah

Singh and Gogoi’s presence in the Rajya Sabha during the Delhi Services Bill debate – the Bill, expectedly, was passed with 131 votes in its favour and 102 against it – made Monday’s discussion in the Upper House memorable but the reasons for this were vastly different.

The Bill will now be sent to the President for her assent before it is notified as an Act. The INDIA bloc, particularly the AAP, will now have to wait for the Supreme Court to settle the questions over the legislation’s constitutionality.

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