By Yusuf Jameel
(Srinagar, Kashmir – India) — The Chief Minister of restive Indian Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, it seems, is in a fix again. The State Accountability Commission (SAC) has directed him and eight other senior government functionaries to appear before it with replies to a petition against appointment of political favourites as heads of autonomous bodies and advisors with ministerial ranks on March 5.
The notices were issued Friday after the Commission initiated a formal inquisition into a complaint that the Omar government has picked an army of political favourites and some ‘blue eyed boys’ and appointed them as advisors and heads of various government-sponsored autonomous bodies, some of them holding the rank and status of Cabinet Minister and drawing hefty salaries besides enjoying other perks at the cost of state exchequer.
SAC, constituted under the Jammu and Kashmir Accountability Commission Act, 2002, is authorised to inquire into grievances and allegations against public functionaries and for matters connected therewith. The Commission consists of a Chairperson and two Members. As per Section 4 of the Act, the Chairperson and the Members are to be appointed by the Governor after obtaining the recommendations of a Committee consisting of the Chief Minister, the Speaker of Legislative Assembly, the Chief Justice of the State High Court, the Law Minister and the Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Assembly.
(The Government recently decided to implement the recommendations of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission of India given in its Fourth Report on ‘Ethics in Governance’ where under, among other things, the Commission has recommended that the jurisdiction of the Accountability Commissions be restricted to investigate the cases of corruption against Ministers and Members of Legislature only so that its remains focused on checking the menace of corruption in high public offices. For this purpose, the Jammu and Kashmir Accountability Commission Act has been amended to restrict its operation mainly to cases of corruption by political executive like the Chief Minister, the Presiding Officers of the State Legislature, Ministers, Advisors including Advisors to the Chief Minister, the Members of the State Legislature and persons holding the status of a Minister.)
The SAC has in its February 17 order in particular described the appointment of two senior advisors to the Chief Ministers with the status of a Cabinet Minister and Minister of State (junior minister) and their entitlement to the amenities attached to
the office of such government functionaries seemingly to be without any authority of law.
(Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Sagar, however, claims the appointments are within the parameters of Constitution and law of the State and as such absolutely legal as per the Constitution of the State. He told reporters, “We’re examining the SAC notice and will reply to it in accordance with the rules. The appointments are legal and in accordance with the constitution of the state”. Asked whether Advisors and Vice-Chairmen should step down in the backdrop of SAC notice, the Minister said, “There are no corruption charges against them that they will resign. The appointments are constitutional and legal, so there arises no question of their stepping down”. He further said that it is not for the first time that such appointments have been made by a government and that the practice has been in vogue with various regimes and administrative setups in the State in the past also.)
The bolt from the blue, as the SAC move is being seen by many in Jammu and Kashmir, as the official name of the Himalayan state goes — listed as the second most corrupt states in India (the first being Bihar) in a survey done a few years ago – – and beyond has come at a stage when the Opposition has stepped up its tirade against the Omar Abdullah government openly accusing it of shielding corrupt. The recent bizarre episode of senior minister Peerzada Muhammad Sayeed being allowed to continue in the Council of Ministers even after he had quit is in the backdrop of an official probe corroborating the charge that his foster son had, conniving with the concerned officials who were working under him, cheated in a senior secondary examination, is being presented as a glaring example of the Chief Minister’s leniency.
Some outspoken faces in Omar’s National Conference (NC) party — including his uncle and former minister Sheikh Mustafa Kamaal — have explicitly blamed the Congress leadership in New Delhi for “robbing” the coalition government of much of its credibility (Kamaal was recently sacked as the chief spokesperson of the ruling party as his similar outbursts in public had angered ally Congress party0. It was Congress President Sonia Gandhi who reportedly rejected Peerzada’s resignation submitted directly to her instead of the Chief Minister to follow the precedence. Peerzada’s act not only showed the contempt he had for the Chief Minister, but the rejection of his resignation by the Congress president put on parade Omar’s weak standing within the coalition he heads. At least, it was a conspicuous grim reminder of the compulsions of coalition he has been working under, say the Kashmir watchers.
Sadly, the chink in Omar’s armour appears to have sent a wrong message across the bureaucracy and rest of the state administration, which in all probability will leave an adverse impact on its performance. “The institution of Chief Minister itself has been undermined,” alleged a former chief minister and patron of Opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party Mufti Muhammad Sayeed. However, it is still open to question where the fault lies.
Facts of the case and possible fallout
Against the backdrop of Omar’s dependability being questioned openly, the SAC’s move is seen as being loaded with far reaching consequences for him. The notices issued to the Chief Minister, his Advisors and Vice-Chairmen and Chairpersons of various advisory boards seek their appearance in person or through their counsel for filing statement of defence before the Commission on March 5. The direction was passed in a complaint against former minister and senior Congress leader Khem Lata Wakhloo in capacity of chairperson of J&K Social Welfare Board. The main charge against her is that she enjoys the salary, perks and other amenities admissible to a Minister of State without being legally entitled to. Consequently, the appointment of Advisors to the Chief Minister and chairmen of all the Advisory Boards came under the ambit of the complaint.
Hence, the notices have been served on the Chief Minister and his Advisors Devinder Singh Rana and Mubarak Gul besides half a dozen hand-picked heads of various state-sponsored advisory bodies including Board for Development of Pahari Speaking People, Advisory Board for Development of Gujjars and Bakerwals, Advisory Board for Development of Kissans, Advisory Board for Welfare and Development of Other Backward Classes, Advisory Board for Development of Scheduled Castes and State Commission for Women. The beneficiaries are prominent faces in NC and Congress.
They have been directed by the SAC through the notices to show cause as to why the interim recommendation in terms of Section 16 of the Act may not be made. The Commission comprising its Chairperson Justice Y. P. Nargotra and Justice Hakim Imtiyaz Hussain has also directed that the copy of the order be also sent to the Governor as per the requirement of Section 13 of the Act. “The posts of Advisor and Political Advisor to the Chief Minister have not been shown to be the creation of any Statute or the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir”, the Commission observed while raising a legal question.
Responding to the government’s claim that the posts were created and filled in exercise of its administrative and executive discretion, the SAC referred to the Constitutional mandate and observed “under the Scheme of the Constitution, the executive power of the State is vested in the Governor to be exercised by him directly or through a person or authority as he may direct. No order issued by the Governor delegating any such power in favour of the Government or any authority has been brought to our notice as yet”.
However, assuming that the government has been delegated with the power of creation of such posts for smooth running of the affairs of the State, it said that still the power to regulate the recruitments and conditions of service of persons appointed to public services and posts in connection with the affairs of the State under the Constitution lies with the Legislature, who may by law regulate the same and in case legislature has not made any such law, then the power lies with the Governor to regulate the same either directly or through a person he may direct.”
The SAC further said, “In the present case neither any statute of the legislature nor any order of the Governor whereby the Government has been specifically vested with the authority to appoint Advisors to the Chief Minister and confer upon the Constitutional status of a Cabinet Minister/ Minister of State for dealing with the affairs of the State and enjoying the amenities attached there to, has been brought to our notice by the Government while furnishing the information.” It observed that no person unless appointed in accordance with law under the State can legally be entitled to deal with the affairs of the State and the payment of any remuneration. “Any appointment made and any remuneration paid without authority of law by the Government would be nothing but a political favour at the cost of public exchequer”, it added.
The Commission also said that in the case the appointment of Rana and Gul as Political Advisor and Advisor, respectively to the Chief Minister with the status of a Minister of state and Cabinet Minister and their entitlement to the amenities attached to the office of a Cabinet Minister/ Minister of State “appear to be without any authority of law”.