Termimg the post as “an extra constitutional authority”, the Punjab and Haryana High Court on Wednesday quashed the appointment of Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s Chief Principal Secretary Suresh Kumar. Following the court’s order, Kumar “relinquished charge” with “immediate effect”. The court said records showed that “overriding powers” had been vested in the retired IAS officer to enable him to take decisions regarding important departments like Home, Vigilance, Personnel, Finance and others.
“Having considered the entire conspectus of the matter, this court finds that respondent no. 5 (Kumar) is holding a ‘public office’ without authority of law and in clear violation of the constitutional scheme, particularly Article 166 (3) and rules framed thereunder. Thus, the appointment of respondent no. 5 is held to be void. Same is hereby set aside,” said Justice Rajan Gupta.
He said the appointment order left no doubt that Kumar could take all decisions in the absence of the chief minister, and held that the safeguard of “ex post facto approval” may “prove futile in certain circumstances”. “If the veil is lifted and record pertaining to appointment of respondent no. 5 examined, it transpires that true intent of the appointment, as reinforced by the standing order, is to confer powers on him to take important decisions relating to functioning of the state, its sovereign powers as well,” said the Bench.
Justice Gupta said it may not be possible to delegate such powers even to a serving cadre officer like the Principal Secretary, and observed that there are certain functions which are entrusted to elected representatives of the people.
“It is not difficult to envision a situation where the state is plunged into crisis by a decision taken by such appointee because he cannot be expected to have, despite his long career as a bureaucrat, same vision for the development of the state as the chief minister who enjoys the mandate of the general populace and is answerable to them for his decisions,” said the court.
Justice Gupta said it was not clear why an in-service officer could not have performed his functions. “… he (Kumar) would be higher in rank to the Chief Secretary, which may create anomaly in the hierarchy of the administrative secretaries in the state. Besides, it is unusual for the state to authorise a contractual employee to exercise powers, sovereign in nature, even for a limited period i.e. during absence of the Chief Minister,” it said.
The court also asked why the Governor’s approval was not sought for Kumar’s post. Kumar, who retired as Additional Chief Secretary in 2016, was appointed Chief Principal Secretary to Chief Minister in March, for five years. His appointment was challenged by a Mohali-based lawyer, who filed a plea in the high court last August. Kumar then wrote to the CM on August 2, saying that if the onus of defending his appointment was on him, his letter should be considered as his resignation. The CM assigned Advocate General Atul Nanda to defend his case.
On October 31, former Solicitor General of India Ranjit Kumar was roped in to defend Kumar. On November 6, Kumar again sent his resignation, but it was not accepted. In an email sent to Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh on Wednesday, Kumar wrote: “With my note of August 2, 2017 and subsequent resignation of November 6, 2017, I do hereby relinquish the charge of Chief Principal Secretary to CM Punjab with immediate effect.”
“Suresh Kumar, a 1983-batch IAS officer, was appointed to the key post on account of his calibre and excellent track record in important roles. The Chief Minister’s decision to name the officer as his Chief Principal Secretary was motivated by the need to have a qualified, experienced and trusted officer in this vital position,” the state government said in a statement.
“The judgement is fairly detailed and is currently under examination by the government. After such examination… the future course of action will be determined in the matter,” Nanda said in a written statement. During Singh’s last tenure as CM in 2002-2007, Kumar was his Principal Secretary.