Following the recommendation of the Election Commission (EC), the President disqualified 20 MLAs of the Delhi Legislative Assembly last month for holding an ‘office of profit’. The legislators in question were appointed as parliamentary secretaries to various ministries in the Delhi government. The Delhi High Court is currently hearing a petition filed by the disqualified MLAs against the EC’s recommendation. There have been reports of parliamentary secretaries being appointed in 20 states in the past with court judgments striking down these appointments in several cases. In this context, we discuss the law on holding an ‘office of profit’.
What is the concept of ‘office of profit’?
MPs and MLAs, as members of the legislature, hold the government accountable for its work. The essence of disqualification under the office of profit law is if legislators holds an ‘office of profit’ under the government, they might be susceptible to government influence, and may not discharge their constitutional mandate fairly. The intent is that there should be no conflict between the duties and interests of an elected member. Hence, the office of profit law simply seeks to enforce a basic feature of the Constitution- the principle of separation of power between the legislature and the executive.
According to the definition, what constitutes an ‘office of profit’?
The law does not clearly define what constitutes an office of profit but the definition has evolved over the years with interpretations made in various court judgments. An office of profit has been interpreted to be a position that brings to the office-holder some financial gain, or advantage, or benefit. The amount of such profit is immaterial.
In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that the test for determining whether a person holds an office of profit is the test of appointment. Several factors are considered in this determination including factors such as: (i) whether the government is the appointing authority, (ii) whether the government has the power to terminate the appointment, (iii) whether the government determines the remuneration, (iv) what is the source of remuneration, and (v) the power that comes with the position.
What does the Constitution say about holding an ‘office of profit’? Can exemptions be granted under the law?
Under the provisions of Article 102 (1) and Article 191 (1) of the Constitution, an MP or an MLA (or an MLC) is barred from holding any office of profit under the central or state government. The articles clarify that “a person shall not be deemed to hold an office of profit under the government of India or the government of any state by reason only that he is a minister”. The Constitution specifies that the number of ministers including the Chief Minister has to be within 15% of the total number of members of the assembly (10% in the case of Delhi, which is a union territory with legislature).
Provisions of Articles 102 and 191 also protect a legislator occupying a government position if the office in question has been made immune to disqualification by law. In the recent past, several state legislatures have enacted laws exempting certain offices from the purview of office of profit. Parliament has also enacted the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act, 1959, which has been amended several times to expand the exempted list.
Is there a bar on how many offices can be exempted from the purview of the law?
There is no bar on how many offices can be exempted from the purview of the law.
It was reported in 2015 that all 60 MLAs of the Nagaland Assembly had joined the ruling alliance. The Nagaland Chief Minister appointed 26 legislators as parliamentary secretaries in July 2017. Goa, an assembly of 40 MLAs, exempted more than 50 offices by means of an ordinance issued in June last year. Puducherry, an assembly of 33 MLAs, exempted more than 60 offices by passing an amendment bill in 2009. In Delhi, the 21 parliamentary secretaries added to the seven ministerial posts would constitute 40% of the 70-member legislature. In all, 20 states have similar provisions.
This raises an important concern. If a large number of legislators are appointed to such offices, their role in scrutinising the work of the government may be impaired. Thus, this could contravene the spirit of Articles 102 and 191 of the Constitution.
What is the debate around making appointments to the office of parliamentary secretaries?
Interestingly, the appointment of legislators as parliamentary secretaries, in spite of the office being exempted from purview of the office of profit law, has been struck down by courts in several states.
Why has the appointment as a parliamentary secretary been struck down while other offices are allowed to be exempt from the purview of the law? If legislators can be accommodated in positions other than ‘parliamentary secretary’, why do state governments continue to appoint legislators as parliamentary secretaries instead of appointing them to other offices?
These questions have been answered in a Calcutta High Court judgment in 2015 which held that since the position may confer the rank of a junior minister on the legislator, the appointment of MLAs as parliamentary secretaries was an attempt by state governments to bypass the constitutional ceiling on the number of ministers. In 2009, the Bombay High Court also held that appointing parliamentary secretaries of the rank and status of a Cabinet Minister is in violation of Article 164 (1A) of the Constitution. The Article specifies that the number of ministers including the Chief Minister should not exceed 15% of the total number of members in the assembly.
On June 13, 2022, the West Bengal government passed a Bill to replace the Governor with the Chief Minister, as the Chancellor of 31 state public universities (such as Calcutta University, Jadavpur University). As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (2019-20), state public universities provide higher education to almost 85% of all students enrolled in higher education in India. In this blog, we discuss the role of the Governor in state public universities.
What is the role of the Chancellor in public universities?
State public universities are established through laws passed by state legislatures. In most laws the Governor has been designated as the Chancellor of these universities. The Chancellor functions as the head of public universities, and appoints the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Further, the Chancellor can declare invalid, any university proceeding which is not as per existing laws. In some states (such as Bihar, Gujarat, and Jharkhand), the Chancellor has the power to conduct inspections in the university. The Chancellor also presides over the convocation of the university, and confirms proposals for conferring honorary degrees. This is different in Telangana, where the Chancellor is appointed by the state government.
The Chancellor presides over the meetings of various university bodies (such as the Court/Senate of the university). The Court/Senate decides on matters of general policy related to the development of the university, such as: (i) establishing new university departments, (ii) conferring and withdrawing degrees and titles, and (iii) instituting fellowships.
The West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 designates the Chief Minister of West Bengal as the Chancellor of the 31 public universities in the state. Further, the Chief Minister (instead of the Governor) will be the head of these universities, and preside over the meetings of university bodies (such as Court/Senate).
Does the Governor have discretion in his capacity as Chancellor?
In 1997, the Supreme Court held that the Governor was not bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, while discharging duties of a separate statutory office (such as the Chancellor).
The Sarkaria and Puunchi Commission also dealt with the role of the Governor in educational institutions. Both Commissions concurred that while discharging statutory functions, the Governor is not legally bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. However, it may be advantageous for the Governor to consult the concerned Minister. The Sarkaria Commission recommended that state legislatures should avoid conferring statutory powers on the Governor, which were not envisaged by the Constitution. The Puunchi Commission observed that the role of Governor as the Chancellor may expose the office to controversies or public criticism. Hence, the role of the Governor should be restricted to constitutional provisions only. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 also mentions this recommendation given by the Puunchi Commission.
Recently, some states have taken steps to reduce the oversight of the Governor in state public universities. In April 2022, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed two Bills, to transfer the power of appointing the Vice-Chancellor (in public universities) from the Governor, to the state government. As of June 8, 2022, these Bills have not received the Governor’s assent.
In 2021, Maharashtra amended the process to appoint the Vice Chancellor of state public universities. Prior to the amendment, a Search Committee forwarded a panel of at least five names to the Chancellor (who is the Governor). The Chancellor could then appoint one of the persons from the suggested panel as Vice-Chancellor, or ask for a fresh panel of names to be recommended. The 2021 amendment mandated the Search Committee to first forward the panel of names to the state government, which would recommend a panel of two names (from the original panel) to the Chancellor. The Chancellor must appoint one of the two names from the panel as Vice-Chancellor within thirty days. As per the amendment, the Chancellor has no option of asking for a fresh panel of names to be recommended.