The Supreme Court on Wednesday advised the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers not to induct in their ministries people against whom charges have been framed in criminal or corruption cases. Stating that this was the “constitutional expectation”, the court said such “tainted” people “thwart the principle of good governance” and destroy the trust reposed by the Constitution in the highest executive.
A five-judge Constitution Bench, headed by Chief Justice of India R M Lodha, held that while it cannot issue directives to the PM or CMs, a cabinet with clean leaders was “legitimately expected” in view of the sanctity of their “oath to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India and to discharge their duties faithfully and conscientiously”.
“The Prime Minister, while living up to the trust reposed in him, would consider not choosing a person with criminal antecedents against whom charges have been framed for heinous or serious criminal offences or charges of corruption to become a minister of the council of ministers… This is what the Constitution suggests and that is the constitutional expectation from the Prime Minister. Rest has to be left to the wisdom of the Prime Minister. We say nothing more, nothing less,” said the 123-page judgement, authored by Justice Dipak Misra.
The court, however, said it cannot pass any direction on disqualification since “it would tantamount to crossing the boundaries of judicial review” and adding something that the Constitution did not provide for.
According to the Association of Democratic Reforms, at least a dozen ministers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s team have been named in criminal cases. About 34 per cent of the current Lok Sabha members have criminal cases pending against them, including 21 per cent who face serious charges like murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.
Deciding a PIL filed by advocate Manoj Narula eight years ago, the court said, “It is expected that the persons who are chosen as ministers do not have criminal antecedents, especially facing trial in respect of serious or heinous criminal offences or offences pertaining to corruption. He has to bear in mind that unwarranted elements or persons facing charges may thwart or hinder the canons of constitutional morality or principles of good governance and eventually diminish the constitutional trust.”
In a concurrent but separate judgement, Justice Kurian Joseph referred to the Constituent Assembly debate wherein Dr B R Ambdekar had said the issue was to be left to the good senses of the PM and the CMs, since it was expected that they would not induct an otherwise unfit person. He regretted that over a period of time, this had become “only a story of great expectations”.
“Hence, it has become the bounden duty of the court to remind the PM and CMs of their duty to act in accordance with the constitutional aspirations… they will be well advised to consider avoiding any person in the council of ministers against whom charges have been framed by a criminal court,” he said.
Justice Madan B Lokur, in his concurrent but separate judgement, said that although the burden of appointing a suitable person as minister lies on the shoulders of the PM or CMs, they must remember that they are “answerable to Parliament and under the gaze of the watchful eye of the people of the country.” He added that it was, however, for the legislature to pass a law on restricting people with criminal antecedents from becoming ministers.
The petition was filed by Narula after Lalu Prasad, Mohd Taslimuddin and some others were included in the union council of ministers in 2004. He contended that those discharging public duties should be of unquestionable integrity.
The Centre had argued that removing ministers was against the constitutional prerogative of Parliament and will of the people, and that “once a person is an MP, he is entitled to be in the council of ministers, if the Prime Minister so decides.”
While amicus curiae Rakesh Dwivedi had favoured removal of ministers facing serious charges, senior advocates K Parasaran and T R Andhyarujina, contended that any kind of additional prohibition by a judicial interpretation was impermissible since the PM was the sole repository of power under the Constitution on the issue.