On 26 July 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that state assemblies have no powers to enact legislation to appoint parliamentary secretaries. This led to the disqualification of the Delhi government’s 20 MLAs of the Aam Aadmi Party for holding office of profit as parliamentary secretaries, subsequent to the notices served on them by the Election Commission.
This appears to be having serious repercussions in Manipur where, after the 2017 assembly election, the BJP formed a government with the support of a four-member team from both the Naga People’s Front and the National People’s Party. Since the Tenth Schedule limits the number of cabinet ministers to a dozen, chief minister Nongthombam Biren Singh had to act cautiously.
He gave cabinet berths to four NPF members, one each to the Congress and the JD (U), the NPF, NPP, the Lok Jana Shakti Party and four to the BJP themselves. Since the party was able to garner only 22 seats in the run-up to the last election, it quickly entered a marriage of convenience with almost all non-Congress parties, including an independent MLA. They were flown to Guwahati and kept under duress until a grand alliance was signed.
Okram Ibobi Singh’s Congress citadel began to crumble after four Congress MLAs joined the BJP bandwagon. But the shrewd manipulator that Ibobi is, he kept his cards close to his chest by not invoking the Tenth Schedule and seeking their disqualification. And in the assembly they continued to sit in the opposition bench, although technically, they were to sit in the treasury bench. And in the absence of any formal complaint from the Congress, relating to their disqualification, Speaker Yumnam Khemchand refrained from taking any action against them.
To keep his flock together and in good humour, the chief minister soon fell back on an Ibobi legacy by invoking the Manipur Parliamentary (Appointment, salary, allowances and miscellaneous provisions) Act, 2012. He then distributed portfolios. They were sworn in the conference hall of the chief minister’s complex after then chief secretary Oinam Nabakishore issued due notification on 24 March 2017. Subsequently they assumed office with perks like official cars and security escorts.
The High Courts of Sikkim and Meghalaya had also held the posts of parliamentary secretaries in their respective state assemblies to be unconstitutional.
In the meantime, N Biren Singh had announced during the ongoing budget session that all 12 holding the posts of parliamentary secretaries have resigned.
Actually the die was cast when the state Congress president, TN Haokip, threw a bombshell aimed at the state governor Najma Heptulla. At a media meet he disclosed that his party, as early as last year, had, following the Supreme Court verdict, wrote to the governor requesting her to revoke the Act of 2012 and referred the matter to the Election Commission to decide the fate of the 12 MLAs.
Haokip again wrote to the governor on 25 October 2017 seeking revocation of the 2012 Act and action against the MLAs. But the governor maintained an ominous silence and did not even acknowledge the receipt of the letters. An infuriated Haokip then thundered that they will have no recourse left but to move court over the governor’s inaction for, as per the Article 91 and 92, the governor is the final authority in matters relating to appointment of parliamentary secretaries.
The governor can disqualify the 12 parliamentary secretaries or she may refer the matter to the Election Commission if she chooses to do so .This means that chief minister has no locus standi to announce that the posts of parliamentary secretaries had been abolished since.
Then barely four days after Abhilash Kumari was sworn in as the chief justice of Manipur High Court, she and her companion judge, Justice Kh Nobin, admitted a writ petition filed by two sitting Congress MLAs, namely Surjakumar Okram and DD Thaisii, praying for the annulment of the impugned Manipur Parliamentary Secretary Act 2012.
Subsequently, the Manipur High Court issued notices to the chief secretary and other functionaries of the Manipur government, returnable within four weeks. The queries sought included salaries drawn by the dozen legislators/parliamentary secretaries, other benefits received, offices allotted and vehicles utilised by them; to call for and scrutinise records from the relevant government departments and to pass such an order as deemed fit or give appropriate directives pleaded for in the writ petition.
Speaking to The Statesman, senior counsel for the petitioners, N Ibotombi Singh said that the powers to appoint MLAs, to positions holding the rank of ministers of states or otherwise, is vested with the governor only and that the chief minister’s action was tantamount to that of being an extra-constitutional authority, perhaps with the blessings of the governor herself. The state lacks the authority to make such appointments as has been laid down by the Supreme Court.
This news of the Congress moving the High Court against the governor seems to have perturbed her, who till then, like the chief minister, had been playing to the gallery singing paeans in praise of Narendra Modi and the government in the state. For, when the reports last came in, she was seen huddling with officials of the state’s law department and in touch with legal luminaries in the Centre, seeking their advice on the matter. However, the governor is yet to refer the matter to the Election Commission. The expected verdict of the High Court, which cannot go against the earlier ruling of the Supreme Court, must have come as a rude awakening to N Biren Singh and his aides, for, on 16 February, in a hastily-called cabinet meeting, the government decided to introduce a bill in the current assembly session seeking the revocation of the Manipur Parliamentary Secretary Act, 2012. This was confirmed to The Statesman by the deputy chief minister, Y Joykumar but he seemed sceptical over the outcome, for the damage has already been done.
Also, speaking to The Statesman, Khumukcham Joykishan, spokesperson of the Congress in the assembly said that when the chief minister himself had committed an act which has already been deemed by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional, then how is he different from the insurgents who are being hunted down, arrested or killed? And on the proposed bill, he said it was “repealed”. Does this mean that those who have already held the position would be provided immunity from any future course of action or does it imply that the Act would still remain? According to counsel, Ibotombi Singh even if the Act has repealed the fact that a dozen MLAs have held positions of office of profit cannot be waived at any cost, citing the recent ruling of the Delhi High Court refusing to stay the verdict of the Election Commission disqualifying the 20 AAP legislators holding that they are already guilty of having held office.
Asked what would happen in case the governor refuses to forward the matter to the Election Commission, a constitutional expert said that a case can be moved against the governor either in the state High Court or in the Supreme Court for, although the governor is the head of the state, he or she cannot be above the law.
All this points to a stormy political season for Manipur if the governor is coerced into forwarding her full report to the Election Commission, which also appears to have one set of rules for AAP legislators and another for BJP- wallahs. The stage seems to be set for a spell of President’s Rule in the state with the Centre’s agent ruling the roost, running a proxy administration for the saffron brigade.
The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman