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Law minister ditched from Cabinet - death knell for reforms or needed boost?

Law-Minister-HR-Bhardwaj
Law-Minister-HR-Bhardwaj

Incumbent Law Minister H R Bhardwaj has been dropped from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's new Cabinet in a surprise round of appointments today that could derail the process of India's judicial and legal reform.

With continuity being a prized quality in Indian political progress, it is still unclear who will get the law and justice portfolio and whether the existing course of reform will be held.

One Delhi lawyer, who preferred not to be named, said: "If he had come in, we would probably be looking at a December opening. But now that he is not and some non-descript person is slated to come in, I think it is open for speculation."

Mulla & Mulla & Blunt & Caroe partner Shardul Thacker disagreed and tipped two prominent lawyers for the post. "This change will not in any manner hamper the legal liberalisation of entry of foreign law firms," he said.

Thacker argued that it was expected that Bhardwaj (pictured) would be dropped: "It only means that they would bring in someone more effective to ensure that judicial reforms are accelerated – filling in vacancies of judges, improving the system for clearing the backlog, which is mounting up even in the Supreme Court."

Thacker said that there would likely be two lawyers in the running for the Law and Justice post: India National Congress member Kapil Sibal and Harvard LLM and former Science minister Salman Khursheed. "Knowing them both," he said, "my personal view is that they are both very experienced and capable of heading the law ministry and improving its performance."

Another Mumbai partner is more doubtful. "This may derail the process of liberalisation as we were close to opening up," he said. "With P C [Chidambaram] heading home I am not sure who will get this berth, it will be interesting."

The Delhi partner said that Commerce & Industry was the key deciding Ministry, which was likely to continue being staffed by minister Kamal Nath. "I think given our trade off on legal services with farm subsidies - which are critical for the country - I think it's inevitable that we have to open. Its just a question of when and in what form."

The Economic Times claimed that Gandhi-loyalist Bhardwaj's exclusion was primarily due to the embarrassment he caused the government.

The paper wrote: "His bungling of the office of profit legislation caused immense embarrassment to the government. The then President A P J Abdul Kalam withheld his assent to the legislation, forcing the government to rework the bill.

"The law minister’s mishandling of the government affidavit on the Rama Sethu proved to be yet another gaffe. More recently he flagrantly used the law ministry and its senior officers as instruments of the Congress in major CBI cases. Each effort simply made it tougher for Congress to keep a straight face while saying it believed in clean governance."

Bhardwaj was Minister of Law, Justice and Company Affairs between 1992 and 1996, and served as Minister of Law and Justice from 2004 to date.

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