In the midst of all the public passion and high drama in the wake of the release and then re-arrest of Irom Chanu Sharmila, and the continuing din of demand for the extension of the Inner Line Permit System to Manipur, one other very important development remained obscure from public scrutiny. This pertains to the serious charge that the State government has failed to explain or clarify on the matter of appointment of five MLAs as Parliamentary Secretaries designated as “Ministers” in the current 12th Manipur Legislative Assembly. The allegation by Advocate Thoudam Manihar Singh is, the Parliamentary Secretaries were appointed under the Parliamentary Secretaries Act 2012, but in Manipur’s case, they were designated as “Mininsters”, and this according to him would violate the provisions of Article 164(1A) of the Indian Constitution. The advocate also charged the fact of the Chief Minister of Manipur, Okram Ibobi, administering oath of office and secrecy to these newly appointed “Ministers” is again unprecedented and may not be warranted by the Constitution. The advocate’s letter seeking the government’s clarification on the matter was routed through the office of the Governor of Manipur, VK Duggal, but despite assurance by the latter that the matter would be looked into, only a deafening silence has followed thereafter.
This is unbecoming, for the matter indeed is nothing to trifle. The named article of the Constitution which forms the basis of the Anti Defection Law, clearly specifies that the Parliament or State Legislative Assembly will have a ceiling of 15 percent of the size of the respective Houses as the limit of the size of their governments. If this rule was to be strictly followed, Manipur which has a Legislative Assembly of 60 MLAs should have been entitled to a government with only nine Ministers. But as all of us close followers of news events in the State remembers, this law was relaxed for small Legislative Assemblies like Manipur, and the permissible number of Ministers in their governments, including the Chief Minister, was fixed at the absolute number of 12. Sure enough, the current Congress government in the State, has long exhausted this quota of 12 Ministers from the time of government formation two and a half years ago. This being what it is, the appointment of five more MLAs as Parliamentary Secretaries may actually be in violation of the Anti-Defection Law. So why has the government not clarified the matter as yet? It probably is so certain public memory is short and the matter would be soon forgotten even if no action ever is taken. This probably is how it is turning out to be, for public memory in Manipur is indeed short. Except for very overt affront on their senses of rights and entitlements, nobody seems outraged by such possible skewing of the rule of law by those who are meant precisely to ensure it is adhered to by everyone.
A few months ago, there was a clamour by a number of ‘rebel’ MLAs urging the Chief Minister to affect a midterm reshuffle of the Ministry so that those who could not be accommodated as Ministers in this government can have a go at being Ministers. No prizes for guessing, but such a manoeuvre would have been objected to tooth and nail by those who are already in the Ministerial chairs, and the Chief Minister it seems proved to be a firm wall the rebels ran into, and all the sound and fury with which they pushed the rebellion, withered away in a whimper. Things today are thus back to Manipur’s standard of abnormal normal. Quite obviously, if the allegation of appointment of five MLAs as “Ministers” has any basis, the conclusion would be, this is part of the same game of musical chair where every MLAs would have nothing less than a Ministerial berth and the important constitutional posts of Parliamentary Secretaries have in this manner been probably and cheaply reduced to yet another MLA pacification device by the government. The idea of the Cabinet form of democratic government as teamwork, with the Chief Minister as first amongst equals, apparently has been rendered meaningless in places like Manipur, where nobody will have any doubt, governance has been redefined to mean nothing much more then contract brokering from its original exalted assigned purpose of national building. This scramble for Ministerial berths amongst MLAs, in order that there will be plenty to fill personal coffers, is therefore only to be expected. What is tragic in this despicable game is the manner in which various independent democratic institutions, including the supposedly autonomous Commissions and Boards of the government, have been reduced to outposts for disgruntled MLAs with the potential for creating tremors in the stability of the government. Many of these government institutions thus discredited are specialised, professional projects, with job profiles that few or no politician would be found fit to fill. Yet, this is Manipur, where even the legally impossible are continually made possible, and indeed the very notion of ‘legal’ itself has been made a fiction. This notwithstanding, the government must take heed of the clarification sought and answer whether it has in any unwarranted way, elevated the posts of Parliamentary Secretaries, in terms of service, perks and protocol, to that of “Ministers”. If the government expects rule of law to be adhered to by the public, it must practice what it preaches first.