Politics of Profit

The much ‘abused’ practice of appointing politicians to Boards, PSUs  and Commissions, is being challenged in the State Accountability Commission giving the Omar-led government some more anxious moments. Tasavur Mushtaq reports.

In a major action after it was revived last year, the State Accountability Commission (SAC)issued notice to chief minister Omar Abdullah questioning the government’s authority to appoint individuals to vital positions with status of cabinet and ministers of state (MOS) without any oath of office.

Besides Omar, the SAC also issued notices to his advisors, chairpersons and vice chairmen seeking their responses and appear in person or through authorized representatives for filing their replies before it on March 5, 2012.The SAC asked them to show cause why interim recommendations should not be made against them to the competent authority?

During the last 25 years more than thirty persons are believed to have enjoyed status of cabinet or junior ministers in the state. However, it is for the first time that someone has challenged this process, bringing the Omar Abdullah government in the dock.The complaint was filed by one Wali Mohammad Rather.

The state government is mulling its options and may challenge the SAC’s authority over the issue, highly placed sources said.

Defending the government, Law minister Ali Muhammad Sagar claimed that the appointments were legal. “The advisors and vice-chairpersons of various boards were appointed by the government within the parameters of constitution and law and are as such absolutely legal,” Sagar said. “We are examining the SAC notice and will reply to it in accordance with the rules”.

Commenting on the issue a senior law ministry official said, “We have two options available. Either we go to the SAC on March 5 when the case is listed and show the authority that the government has, or simply we can go to the High Court and challenge SAC’s authority on this front.”

The complaint against Congress’ Ms Khemlata Wakhloo, the vice chairperson of the State Social Welfare Board, opened a Pandora’s box.The SAC has conclusively proved that she has been taking hefty salary and enjoying lot of amenities without actually being entitled to the privileges, sources said. A top government official admitted that her name was apparently left-out in the general order that appointed various persons (mostly lawmakers) to head various boards and it “makes a perfect case for misappropriation of public money”.

Going beyond the appointment of Ms Wakhloo, the SAC scrutinized other “political” appointees who as advisors to chief minister and heads of various other boards are enjoying status of cabinet ministers and ministers of state. It termed all these appointment as “political favouritism” and “illegal”.

“No person unless appointed in accordance with law of the state can legally be entitled to deal with the affairs of the state and the payment of any remuneration thereof,” the SAC notice said. “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 the public exchequer.”

According to constitutional experts, the Prime Minister at the centre and the chief ministers in the states have the powers to appoint political leaders or other eminent persons as heads of different bodies in the rank of ministers (both Cabinet and Minister of State).

The process was prevalent in almost all the states, they said, adding that the president and the governors had delegated powers to the prime minister and the chief ministers respectively as per the business rules for making such appointments.Though the government believes the case to be weak, the notices have brought government functioning in the limelight.

Tradition Survives

The process of political appointments, including appointment of ‘Advisors’ and heads of public sector undertakings and boards has been in vogue since decades.

The then chief minister Dr Farooq Abdullah had appointed journalist Tahir Muztar as his Media Advisor during his 1987-90term. During 1996-2002, Dr Abdullah inducted two of NC’s MLAs, including then MLA Dooru, Ghulam Hassan Bhat, as Parliamentary Secretary. They held deputy minister’s portfolios but were not sworn-in for office and secrecy by the Governor. He also picked up journalist O N Kaul as “Media Advisor to Government”.Towards the end of his regime, Dr Abdullah appointed writer Shafi Shaida as “Political Advisor to Chief Minister” and Farooq Nazki as “Media Advisor to Government”.

Again, Dr Abdullah inducted two NC politicians, including one from minority Christian community in Jammu, as Advisors and granted both of them status of MoS in his 1996-2002 government. Then NC’s Chief Whip in Assembly, Mubarak Gul was also declared as equal to a minister in terms of protocol.

The tradition survived when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as a head of PDP-Congress coalition government from 2002 to 2005 appointed fourteen persons to head different Boards with status of cabinet minister to four and minister of state to ten others.

Four of them who were accorded cabinet rank included Sarfaraz Khan, then PDP MLA as head of JK Handlooms Development Corporation, Mohammad Shafi Bhat, then Congress MLA as Chairman, JK Agro Industries Development Corporation, Suman Bhagat, then Congress MLA as Chairperson JK Khadi and Village Industrial Board and Mohammad Sharief Tariq, a PDP leader (now dead) as Chairman, Jammu Central Co-operative Bank.

The persons given the Minister of State were Babu Singh, then Congress MLA as Chairman J&K Minerals, Shamima Dev, Chairperson, J&K State Commission for Women, Dr GN Lone, then PDP MLA, Chairman SIDCO, Ghulam Hassan Khan, then PDP MLA, Chairman JKHPMC, Shabir Ahmed Khan, a Congress leader, Vice Chairman, Advisory Board for Pahari Speaking People. Haji Abdul Rashid, then Congress MLA, Chairman J&K Handicrafts Corporation. Ghulam Mohammad Saroori, then Congress MLA, Chairman J&K Social Welfare Advisory Board, Girdhari Lal, then Congress MLA, Vice Chairman J&K Advisory Board for Welfare and Development of Scheduled Castes, Haji Buland Khan, Vice Chairman, State Advisory Board for Development of Gujjars.

Babu Singh and Shamima Dev had not joined.

Mufti inducted Chairman of J&K Bank, Dr Haseeb Drabu, as ‘Economic Advisor’ to his government according him the status of ‘Minister of State’.

Ghulam Nabi Azad, who succeeded Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as head of Congress-PDP coalition Government in November 2005, continued with all heads of Boards/Corporations excepting those, who were inducted in the council of ministers.

Azad appointed two more political leaders to two different posts in the rank of ministers of state. They included Janak Raj Gupta, a former Congress MP as Advisor (Political Affairs) and Manzoor Ahmed Ganai Advisor (Public Grievances). He had also renewed the appointment of Dr Haseeb Drabu as Economic Advisor.

While being in opposition, Ali Muhammad Sagar and Abdul Rahim Rather had termed appointment of chairmen and vice chairmen for different Boards, Corporations and PSUs as blunt violation of the law on ‘office of profit’.  However,the present National Conference-Congress coalition had given Cabinet status to Mubarak Gul, Advisor to Chief Minister and Minister of State status to ten others including Devender Singh Rana, Political Advisor to Chief Minister, Swaran Lata, Chairperson, J&K Social Welfare Advisory Board, Rachpal Singh, Vice Chairman, J&K State Advisory Board for Development of Kissans, Shamima Firdous, Chairperson, J&K State Commission for Women, Mushtaq Ahmed Shah Bukhari, Vice Chairman, J&K State Advisory Board for Development of Pahari Speaking People, Choudhary Bashir Naz, Vice Chairman, J&K State Advisory Board for Development of Gujjars and Bakerwals, Swarn Lata, Vice Chairperson, J&K State Advisory Board for Development of Scheduled Castes, Kuldeep Raj Verma, Vice Chairman, J&K State Advisory Board for Welfare and Development of OBC, Khem LataWakhloo, Chairperson, State Social Welfare Advisory Board and Jalil Ahmed Khan, Economic Advisor to Government.

Evolution of ‘Office  of Profit’ in J&K

In Jammu and Kashmir, appointing individuals to advisory positions has remained a part of political arena.  Pleasing all who matter, earlier most of the lawmakers would manage berths in the council of ministers and the blue-eyed would get the decorative advisory roles. As the huge ministry of 39- members led by Mufti Sayeed led to a strange situation in civil secretariat as it lacked enough of office space to accommodate the jumbo ministry. His successor Ghulam Nabi Azad piloted a law restricting the strength of council of ministers to twenty percent of the total strength of state’s twin legislative bodies (125).

As berths in the council were limited,the lawmakers started getting leadership of boards and commissions and advisors. Right now, chief minister has two advisors – one with the rank of cabinet minister and another with MoS status. There are eight other boards which are led by lawmakers. They are all enjoying MoS status without having taken oath of office. It is this issue that SAC is trying to resolve.

Creating uproar in March 2006 when the apex court came out with verdicton holding ‘office of profit’,Sonia Gandhi and Jaya Bachan resigned. The resignation forced a new morality on the Congress in J&K where four Congressmen, Haji Rashid, G M Saroori, M Shafi Bhat and Girdhari Lal resigned to survive their lawmaker status.

In August 2006, the state government managed the passage of a peculiar office of profit law, the Prevention of Disqualification Amendment act that excluded a number of positions held by its legislators from disqualification. The law empowered the government to notify other offices to bring under its purview, “if and when it required”. The new law provided for declaring 26 posts out of the ambit of Office of Profit against the 69 declared by the central government.

It is second time in less than a year that Omar Abdullah has been dragged to a Commission to explain his position. The notice issued is linked to the fate of his two advisors and six other lawmakers heading various boards without any oath of office.

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