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There is no substitute for vigilance
July 09, 2004
It is hard even at the best of times to get the national media to focus for long on places outside Delhi and Mumbai, and it is all but impossible in Budget Week. With the Railway Budget, the Economic Survey, and the Budget being presented in the Lok Sabha in quick succession, nothing else seems to matter. However, it would be just as well to take a look at the various state capitals where the 91st Amendment to the Constitution has been causing all sorts of problems for chief ministers.
Very briefly, the 91st Amendment mandates that the number of ministers in a government cannot exceed 15 percent of the total strength of the legislature to which it is responsible. An exception has been made for legislatures with 40 members or fewer, which may have up to 12 ministers. The 91st Amendment came into effect as of July 7, 2004.
Given the obscene number of perks enjoyed by our lords and masters, one could be forgiven for assuming that the 91st Amendment was enacted purely for reasons of economy. But this was almost an afterthought; at the time it was presented as an anti-defection measure. The old Anti-Defection Act – the first piece of legislation moved by the Rajiv Gandhi ministry back in January 1985 – was fundamentally flawed because defections were legal if one-third of the members of a legislative party crossed the floor. This was one of the most hideously abused loopholes in the history of legislation.
Uttar Pradesh ministries became notorious for inducing defections by promising ministerial posts left, right, and centre. The Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha consists of 403 MLAs, but the strength of the ministry of the day always seemed to be close to 100. (I am not sure, but I think there were one or two occasions when it actually crossed into three-figure territory.) Up to a couple of days ago, the Mulayam Singh Yadav ministry was somewhere around 90, give or take one or two. Today, that is no longer possible with the 91st amendment making it impossible for Uttar Pradesh to have more than 60 ministers.
However, it isn't Lucknow but Mumbai and Chandigarh where the resident chief ministers have the most problems. Sushilkumar Shinde had to drop 22 of his 65 ministers, always a problem in a coalition government and doubly so in a state which must go to the polls later this year. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh of Punjab does not need to fear elections and technically leads a full-blown Congress ministry; nevertheless, with Deputy Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal breathing down his neck, he probably had a bigger headache than did his counterpart in Maharashtra.
I understand that some of the people who have been dropped – not just in Punjab and Maharashtra, but also in Uttaranchal – have already started whining about being 'victimised'. Appeals to Sonia Gandhi are already in the pipeline, but I am not quite sure what she is supposed to do.
Sadly, the 91st Amendment may yet turn out to be just as flawed as the original Anti-Defection Act. A loophole in the law has already been discovered by the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Mulayam Singh Yadav has, I understand, already promised the chairmanships of various organisations to those ministers whom he has been forced to squeeze out of his Cabinet. I am sure that this example will not have been lost on his counterparts in other state capitals.
For a start, the ambit of that ambiguous term, 'remunerative political post', needs to be expanded. According to the official document circulated under the then law minister's signature when the bill was enacted, the expression 'remunerative political post' means 'any office – (i) under the Government of India or the Government of a State where the salary or remuneration for such office is paid out of the public revenue of the Government of India or the Government of the State, as the case may be; or (ii) under a body, whether incorporated or not, which is wholly or partially owned by the Government of India or the Government of a State and the salary or remuneration for such office is paid by such body, except where such salary or remuneration paid is compensatory in nature.'
The loophole is in those last words. Assume that you are the chairman of a quasi-autonomous body. You don't get a salary, but are allowed to put in expenses for, say, travel, secretarial expenses, and so on. In other words, all it takes is a little ingenuity to enjoy all the perks of a full-blown ministership.
It makes little sense to cut down on the number of ministers only to discover that full Cabinet status has been conferred on the men and women who head these organisations. This clearly violates, if not the strict letter, the spirit of the 91st Amendment. Any legislator who accepts the chairmanship of such a body must be made to resign to face another election before taking up the post.
At the end of the day, however, no law can possibly be better than the men who must enforce it. The only real solution to curbing political opportunism is an ever vigilant electorate, which will punish everyone who violates its trust or wastes its money.
T V R Shenoy