The High Court of Bombay at Goa on Monday (April 25) said “arguable issues have been raised” in a PIL challenging the “lifetime status of the rank of Cabinet minister” accorded to Pratapsingh Rane, a six-time Chief Minister of Goa and a legislator for a full 50 years.
The unprecedented status was conferred on the octogenarian Congress leader this January by the state’s earlier BJP government. Days after the announcement, Rane backed out of the Legislative Assembly election, even though he had already been declared the Congress candidate from his bastion of Poriem.
His daughter-in-law Deviya Rane debuted from the seat on a BJP ticket and won by the highest margin in the state.
Lawyer Aires Rodrigues, who has filed the PIL challenging the decision to grant such a status to Rane, said that this is the first time in the country that any state government had taken such a step. The PIL was admitted on Monday, and a division bench of Justices M S Sonak and R N Laddha will hear the case on May 2.
What is the “lifetime status of the rank of Cabinet minister” granted to Pratapsingh Rane?
On January 6, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant had announced that the state Cabinet had taken a decision to accord this special status to Rane. “Mr Pratapsingh Raoji Rane, former Chief Minister and former Speaker (of the Goa Legislative Assembly) has completed 50 years as a legislator. The Cabinet has decided that in future also, those who complete 50 years and hold posts like CM and Speaker, like Pratapsingh Rane, will be given the Cabinet status even after their retirement,” Sawant had said.
The previous government led by Sawant, in which Rane’s son Vishwajit Rane too was a Minister, took this decision a little more than a month before the February 14 Assembly elections. Last year, a congratulatory motion had been passed in the Assembly, and MLAs from all parties had felicitated Rane, who first won the Sattari seat in 1972 and never lost an election thereafter.
On March 24, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had tweeted: “Congratulations to Shri Pratapsingh Rane Ji on this momentous feat of completing 50 years as MLA. His passion for public service and Goa’s progress is reflected in his work. I remember our interactions when we both served as Chief Ministers of our respective states.”
So what is it that the PIL filed in the High Court of Bombay at Goa has challenged?
Lawyer Rodrigues has urged the High Court to quash the January 7 notification of the government under which Rane was conferred with the “lifetime status of the rank of cabinet minister”. Rodrigues has contended that Goa has a 12-member Cabinet, and the conferment of Cabinet status on Rane results in the number of Cabinet ranks rising to 13, which exceeds the ceiling mandated by the Constitution.
Stating that the very purpose of the 91st Amendment was to prevent jumbo Cabinets and the resultant drain on the public exchequer, Rodrigues contended that the lifetime status granted to Rane was a “back door entry in wilful disobedience of the mandate of law”.
The Constitution (91st Amendment) Act, 2003 inserted clause 1A in Article 164, which says “the total number of Ministers, including the Chief Minister, in the Council of Ministers in a State shall not exceed fifteen per cent of the total number of members of the Legislative Assembly of that State… provided that the number of Ministers, including the Chief Minister in a State shall not be less than twelve”.
There are 40 seats in the unicameral Goa Assembly.
Rodrigues told the court on Monday that as a Cabinet minister for life, Rane would be entitled to 12 staff members – OSDs, support staff, peons, driver – which would cost the exchequer Rs 90 lakh a year. Although Rane has not availed of it, the ‘Cabinet’ rank would also entitle him to government accommodation, vehicle and unlimited free travel for him and his spouse, Rodrigues told The Indian Express.
Why did the BJP take this decision for a politician who had spent 45 of his 50 years as MLA in the Congress?
There is a backstory to the decision, announced ahead of the Assembly elections.
In December 2021, the Congress had declared Rane as its candidate from the Poriem seat. Soon afterward, Rane’s son and then state Health Minister Vishwajit Rane (who retains the portfolio in the current Pramod Sawant government), said that he would contest against his father on the BJP ticket and would defeat him by a record margin. Vishwajit, an undefeated five-time lawmaker from the neighbouring Valpoi seat, had left the Congress in 2017 to join the BJP.
At a public rally that same month, former Maharashtra Chief Minister and the BJP’s Goa election incharge Devendra Fadnavis had said that his party would soon receive “blessings” from the senior Rane. Fadnavis had earlier met Rane at his residence, and had sought the “blessing” that he should leave the Poriem seat for Vishwajit and the BJP.
The Ranes, who are among the politically most influential families in Goa, hold sway in the Sattari taluka, of which both the seats of Valpoi and Poriem are part.
Over several days, there was speculation about a possible father-son poll duel in Poriem. Eventually, Pratapsingh Rane’s decision to back out was seen as Vishwajit having prevailed over his father. While Vishwajit himself remained in Valpoi, his wife Deviya made a sensational debut in Poriem, bringing the seat to the BJP for the first time.
Rodrigues’s PIL states that since Rane, a Congress candidate at the time he was granted lifetime Cabinet status, “was capable of toppling the ruling party’s apple cart in Poriem, a malafide strategy was adopted by the BJP to offer him a carrot not to contest elections”.
Deviya’s victory in Poriem also strengthened Vishwajit’s position in the BJP. While he lost out in the race to become CM after the BJP returned to power in March, he effectively functions as the Number 2 in a Cabinet that includes legislators who are senior to him.
What were the political reactions to the decision to grant Rane status of a Cabinet minister for life?
Rane himself had said he had not asked for anything. “They have recognised my 50 years’ service. Perhaps, the government thought it best to do it. I have not asked for it,” he had said. On Monday, his lawyer Joao Dias declined to comment on the PIL before the court.
Vishwajit, however, had profusely thanked his Cabinet colleagues. He had tweeted on January 6, “I am grateful to the Hon’ble Chief Minister @DrPramodSawant & entire cabinet for according a lifetime cabinet status to my father Shri Pratapsingh Raoji Rane. There is no greater way to honour his 50 years of public service as Chief Minister, Speaker and MLA.”
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Girish Chodankar, then president of the Goa Pradesh Congress Committee, had said that the BJP was “desperate” before the election, but that Rane would not “fall prey” to the party’s move.
“This is a new move. This is unheard of. We don’t know what they have announced is legal or illegal, constitutional or unconstitutional. But BJP is desperate and it can do anything. He (Pratapsingh Rane) commands the respect of people like no one else and he has a place in the hearts of the people of Goa. In 50 years he has an unblemished record. His loyalty to the party is undoubted. He is a royal and upright man. These things are too small for a man of his stature. He will not fall prey to these things,” Chodankar had said.