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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Opposition may soon flounder on ‘swimming pool of political appointments’

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz

SRINAGAR, Feb 18: It is for Jammu & Kashmir State Accountability Commission (SAC) to bring home to Minister of Law Ali Mohammad Sagar that ‘Customary Law’ is least pertinent to making political appointments. Mr Sagar deserved credit to remember that the process of political appointments, including induction of ‘Advisors’ and heads of public sector undertakings and boards has been in vogue since the days of Sher-e-Kashmir Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. SAC may, on its turn, tell Minister and Secretary of Law that two wrongs don’t make a right and proceed further on the judicial and constitutional scrutiny of the political appointments in question---those made by current Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.

However, the politicians stoking fire on ‘ministerial status’ of the off-oath coalition leaders would fade out soon. Like in the unfair means scandal of J&K State Board of School Education (BOSE), Independent MLA Engineer Rashid could stand out as the only mainstream politician questioning Omar Abdullah government’s political appointments in the forthcoming session of Legislature. He singularly has an advantage to his credit: He is fresh in mainstream politics and has neither a party nor MLAs in his organisation.

Significantly, even the firebrand brigade of J&K’s politicians---including Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami of CPI (M) and Harsh Dev Singh of National Panthers Party---has been a mute spectator to the academic scandal involving Minister of Education Peerzada Mohammad Sayeed. PDP President Mehbooba Mufti’s statement took the sting out when she asserted in her first reaction that Peerzada’s dismissal from Cabinet would not eradicate corruption. She would have perhaps served an ultimatum and threatened to freeze the government as well as the Budget session of Assembly had a National Conference Minister fallen in the whirlpool.

Legislators like Tarigami have the constraints of developing their constituencies with whatever comes their way from NC, Congress or PDP. Since they need more and more schools for their voters and the same flow down from the Ministry of Education in brazen contempt of the norms set by Department of Planning and Development, they can not be expected to play an Anna Hazare in the state. Others like Harsh Dev have been themselves identically at the helm of affairs in Education. Mushroom growth of schools in his constituency came into question as recently as the last Budget session of Assembly. Official statistics indicate that in making transfers and sanctioning schools, Peerzada has been more benevolent on NC’s, PDP’s, BJP’s and NPP’s legislators than on his poor colleagues in Congress.

In the following disclosure of ‘irregularity’ in the political appointments of Omar Abdullah government, the Opposition, notwithstanding its negative reactions, has been equally lukewarm. That again is not without reason. Interestingly, nobody has hitherto told Sagar that backdoor appointments of public servants too used to be in practice from Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s days to Dr Farooq Abdullah’s regime in 1996-2002.

Chief Ministers, as Ministers incharge of General Administration Department, would pick up favourites for non-gazeted as well as gazetted posts. They would even shower this largesse on the sons-in-law of their bodyguards. Scores of doctors and engineers came through this backdoor of “discretionary quota (DQ)”. Many of the successive governments’ favourites got plots and licences under DQ. But, Supreme Court declared it completely void when it came under judicial scrutiny.

One of such beneficiaries had to return to his home even after he had performed well and risen to the rank of Superintendent of Police. So, the example of Tariq Abdullah’s direct appointment as MD of JKTDC in 1976 can not be quoted to justify such an appointment in 2012. This necessarily is not to decree that the political appointments in question are patently illegal and unjustified. That is for SAC to adjudicate.

Why Engineer Rashid could end up as an exception, is not perhaps difficult to understand. In the previous PDP-Congress coalition, Messers Sagar and Abdul Rahim Rather had left no stone unturned to establish that appointment of Chairmen and Vice Chairmen for different Boards, Corporations and PSUs was flagrant violation of the law on office of profit. The UPA-I at the centre had already solved the problem by declaring a number of positions as outside the ambit of ‘office of profit’. This was done to rescue a number of Congress incumbents, though the AICC and UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, herself resigned and sought fresh mandate to become a Member of Parliament. That formula was mutatis mutandis invoked to protect political appointees on the PDP-Congress alliance from disqualification.

Not only that. Chief Minister Mufti created history by inducting Chairman of J&K Bank, Haseeb Drabu, as ‘Economic Advisor’ to his government and decorating him with the status of ‘Minister of State’. First time in history, even a banker was seen traveling in a car fitted with the State and the National flags. Mufti’s successor Chief Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, inducted senior Congress leader and non-legislator Janak Raj Gupta as his ‘Political Advisor’. He also decorated an additional advocate general and longtime freelance politician, Manzoor Ganai, as another ‘Political Advisor’. Even in absence of any legal and constitutional sanction, both enjoyed the status, protocol and perks of a Minister/MoS.

In recent times, none other than Dr Farooq Abdullah introduced the system of inducting outsiders as Advisors and grating some of them status of a Minister without oath. In 1996-2002, Dr Abdullah inducted two of NC’s MLAs, including MLA of Dooru Ghulam Hassan Bhat, as Parliamentary Secretary. They held portfolios like Deputy Ministers but were not sworn-in for office and secrecy by Governor. He also picked up journalist O N Kaul as “Media Advisor to Government”. Kaul, however, moved out soon.

Towards the end of his regime, Dr Abdullah appointed writer Shafi Shaida as “Polical Advisor to Chief Minister” and Doordarshan official Farooq Nazki as “Media Advisor to Government”. In 1987-90, Farooq had appointed journalist Tahir Muztar as CM’s Media Advisor. However, none of them was conferred upon the status of Minister or MoS.

Still, Dr Abdullah inducted two of NC’s politicians, including one from minority Christian community in Jammu, as Advisors and granted them both status of MoS in his 1996-2002 regime. Then NC’s Chief Whip in Assembly, Mubarak Gul was also declared as equal to a Minister in terms of protocol. In J&K and several other states, Leader of Opposition (belonging to a party that has one-fourth of strength of House as its members) does by statute enjoy the status and protocol of a Cabinet Minister.

Chairpersons, as also Vice Chairpersons, of several boards, corporations and PSUs have been enjoying the status of Minister or MoS since 1980s. Those having enjoyed this status include bureaucrat-turned-politician, Ghulam Nabi Naik, and senior politician, Abdul Aziz Zargar. Both functioned as Chairmen of J&K Khadi and Village Industry Board (KVIB). Not less than 30 of such persons are estimated to have enjoyed status of Minister or MoS in J&K in the last 25 years. However, it is for the first time that someone has disputed this process and now challenged it in SAC, bringing the Omar Abdullah government in the dock. Yet again, CM has much at stake as it is second time in less than a year that he has been dragged to a commission to explain his position. The book of statute does not seem to be on his side. Yet, he has an advantage that most of the parties have been divers of the same swimming pool. Will that help justify things in SAC, remains to be seen.


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