Coalitions & corruption
A NEW doctrine was conveniently propounded by the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir Omar Abdullah on Nov 17: “It is impossible to eradicate corruption in a coalition government.” Mark the word “impossible”.
He explained, “This opinion is formed not because I am a chief minister of a coalition government for a few years” — since 2009 actually — “but this opinion is formed by the last more than a decade of electoral politics both with UPA (United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress) and the NDA (National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party).” Both governments at the centre, he certified, wanted to eradicate corruption “but found themselves in coalition where unfortunately trade-offs become necessary”.
The present UPA government got rid of one senior minister, A. Raja of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), once he was charged with corruption. It did not prevent the Central Bureau of Investigation from prosecuting the DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi, on charges of complicity in those offences. So much for eradication of corruption becoming “impossible” in coalitions.
No one familiar with his precarious hold on power, with the support of the Congress, the ruling party at the centre, will be deceived by the disingenuous plea.
It is not coalition politics which prevent Omar Abdullah from sacking two of his ministers who came under a cloud. It is his status as the centre’s appointee which binds him. Both those ministers belong to the Congress which protects them. The president of the Congress committee in Indian Kashmir, Saifuddin Soz, has been declaring cockily for Omar’s benefit that no party can form a government in Kashmir except with Congress support. This robs Kashmir’s bogus autonomy of whatever little content it might otherwise have had. The Congress has no real presence in the Valley. The unit is riven with dissension and corroded with intrigue.
Saifuddin Soz is undermined at every step by a central minister from Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Azad, a fixer with an inglorious past. As chief minister he did his best to undermine Kashmir’s autonomy to please the centre. He began political life as the political gangster Sanjay Gandhi’s supporter and switched over to Rajiv Gandhi. Soz is not equal to Azad in sordid intrigues.
However, given the fluctuating balance of political strength between the People’s Democratic Party led by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and the National Conference led by Farooq Abdullah, the Congress even with a minuscule presence in the Valley becomes kingmaker with its seats from Jammu and, of course, the backing of what are euphemistically called “the centre’s agencies”. Where does this leave the State Vigilance Commission?
Omar Abdullah’s abject confession was triggered by the dissolution on Nov 12 of the house committee set up by the chairman of the legislative council to probe into charges of land grabbing against a powerful minister Taj Mohiuddin. Earlier, another Congress minister Peerzada Sayeed had publicly cocked a snook at the chief minister by declaring that he would submit his resignation to the Congress president Sonia Gandhi, neither to the chief minister nor to the governor. Omar approved. “They are accountable to their leadership.”
Omar Abdullah’s thesis violates the fundamentals of parliamentary democracy in three respects. First it negates the minister’s primary responsibility to the legislature under the constitution. His party can discipline him. But for his acts as minister he is responsible to the legislature.
Secondly, it subverts the role of the chief minister, or the prime minister, as the head of the government. Section 35 of the Jammu & Kashmir constitution says “There shall be a council of ministers with the chief minister at the head to aid and advise the governor in the exercise of his functions”. It is this ‘head’, not the minister’s party boss, who decides whether a minister reasonably suspected of wrongdoing should remain in office while public inquiry against him is pending.
The third fundamental of the parliamentary system is violated as brazenly — the collective responsibility of the ministers to the legislature. It is mandated by Section 37 of the Kashmir constitution. “The council of ministers shall be collectively responsible to the legislative assembly”. Both provisions occur in the Indian constitution in identical terms.
Dr B.R. Ambedkar, architect of India’s constitution, explained to members of the constituent assembly on Dec 30, 1948, “the only sanction through which collective responsibility can be enforced is through the prime minister (or the chief minister, in the case of a state). In my judgment collective responsibility is enforced by the enforcement of two principles. One principle is that no person shall be nominated to the cabinet except on the advice of the prime minister. Secondly no person shall be retained as a member of the cabinet if the prime minister says that he shall be dismissed.”
He was replying to members who objected to the prime minister being called ‘the head’ of the council of ministers. To be fair to Omar Abdullah, the first principle was violated in India in its very first coalition at the centre in 1977, by the Janata Party government. The prime minister, Morarji Desai accepted each party’s nominee for his cabinet. That practice was followed by successive coalition governments, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s as well as Manmohan Singh’s.
But this does not, indeed should not, mean the retention of a rotten apple in the cabinet’s basket. Raja had to quit to be replaced by another nominee of the DMK.
No principled head of government would tolerate a minister facing a prima facie case of wrongdoing which warrants an inquiry and pending it, dismissal from office. It is neither the rules nor the practice of coalition government which renders Omar Abdullah powerless in cases of corruption, but his desperate passion for the loaves and fishes of the chief minister’s office.
The writer is an author and a lawyer.