Mollifying Disgruntled MLAs

Amarinder Singh

Tied by the Constitutional bar of having only 15 percent of the Assembly strength in cabinet, Punjab CM Captain Amrinder Singh seems hard pressed to explore new avenues

By Anil Anand

When Punjab chief minister Captain Amrinder Singh expanded his cabinet last month, little had he realized that he would end up antagonizing more of his party MLAs and the resultant rumblings, rather than getting solace of having additional hands to help him run the state. So, it left him with no option but to explore new possibilities of adjusting dissatisfied MLAs.

With his hands tied by the Constitutional bar of having only 15 percent of the total strength of the Assembly as ministers that comes to 18, and the Damocles sword of office-of-profit hanging over his head particularly after Aam Aadmi Party’s misadventure, he seems hard pressed to explore new avenues. The challenge obviously is to ensure that everything fits into the ambit of the Constitution to prevent a crisis of the AAP variety whose 20 MLAs, appointed parliamentary secretaries, are facing the ignominy of losing their seats as their appointments were allegedly in violation of the office-of-profit provisions.     

Although the Amrinder Singh dispensation has zeroed in on a proposal to adopt a new system of appointing MLAs as Legislative Assistants to Ministers, the proposal, it seems has got struck between legal and legislative hurdles. If it gets through, it will be the first of its kind avenue in the country to adjust more legislators in view of the ministerial cap.

As the nomenclature, Legislative Assistants, suggests, those appointed would deal with legislative issues pertaining to the area or ministry work they are assigned. An initial study of the proposal points out that the Legislative Assistants would work under domain of the Legislative Assembly and stewardship of the Speaker.

However, when the idea was conceived by Amrinder’s strategist, it was presumed that the Legislative Assistants would be attached to specific Ministers and in turn would help them in specific areas both inside and outside the Assembly. But as the legal and Constitutional experts reportedly did not favour such an arrangement for fear of violation of office-of-profit provisions, the issue is still hanging fire for a final verdict.

Amrinder had after cabinet reshuffle admitted that the Legislative Assistants would be assisting the ministers in their work. Defending this move, he said that it was impossible for Ministers to handle alone the work related with 42 departments.

It is almost now a month that the reshuffle took place but the proposal to appoint Legislative Assistants has not taken a final shape. The state government is treading cautiously in view of the opposition headed by AAP, which is facing the music in Delhi on this count, having already made their intentions clear. Leader of the Opposition and AAP MLA, Sukhpal Singh Khaira has described the move as making “mockery” of the Constitution.

The opposition smelling a rat felt that the new appointments were similar to those of Parliamentary Secretaries which were earlier quashed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. “This was only a new modus operandi of the chief minister to bypass the Constitution in order to pacify his MLAs and would be challenged legally,” Khair said.

The decision on this issue is not likely to come anytime soon as the disgruntled MLAs get more restive. If a top Punjab government source is to be believed, the office of Legislative Assistants would be entirely under the Speaker’s charge with offices in the Legislative Assembly complex and will have nothing to do with the government. They would be assigned subject and task related to a particular ministry for the purpose of helping in conducting the legislative business.

Apart from legal opinion, efforts are also being made to ensure that the new posts come under some legislative norms and framework. One option under discussion is to create the posts as an act of legislation for which the possibility of framing a requisite Bill and get it passed in the Assembly is a possibility.

It is not clear whether the Bill will be introduced in the next session of the state Assembly or not. A decision to this effect can be taken only once the draft of the Bill comes for the consideration and clearance by the cabinet. This has still not happened and there is no time frame for this, the source indicated.

However, given mood of the opposition it looks an uphill task for Amrinder to see this proposal through smoothly despite a comfortable majority in the House. Although they are not on the same page but the combined opposition of AAP, Shiromani Akali Dal and BJP would spare no efforts to block this proposal from getting passed in the Assembly. Ultimately, it will depend on how Amrinder and his strategists manage the floor.

Given the prevailing mood both in Punjab and the country, the new proposal to provide “employment” to MLAs, is likely generate heat and dust. So, that is why Amrinder is not leaving anything to chance and desisting from rushing through any such proposal.

Khaira’s warning of taking recourse to legal action if Amrinder brought a proposal to appoint Legislative Assistants, has further put a spanner in the latter’s game plan to assuage his disgruntled MLAs. The legal course would mean further delay and in case of an unfavourable court verdict, more problems for the government.