By denying chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh the right to retain their official accommodation after their tenure, the Supreme Court has performed its most important function — speaking up for citizens and their fundamental right to equality. While striking down a provision of the Uttar Pradesh (Salaries, Allowance and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1981, the bench comprising Justices Ranjan Gogoi and R Banumathi explicitly separated the person from the office, and observed that after relinquishing office chief ministers were aam aadmi or common citizens, the same as everyone else. To grant special property rights to them for the natural span of their lives would amount to creating a separate class of citizens.
For several years, citizens more equal than the rest have been a matter of concern for citizens thereby rendered less equal. This special class has been marked out by security details, made necessary by the scourge of terrorism. But necessity became ostentation, with the category of security being worn like an ornament. Security cannot be dispensed with, but the red beacons which accompany the well-secured became a sticking point. Increasing volumes of traffic have already been turning the right to use roads into a privilege, and being sidelined or stopped by convoys with beacons came to be seen as a total suspension of the right to free movement — a supersession of citizens’ rights. Captain Amarinder Singh responded in Punjab by relinquishing his own beacon and reducing his security detail. The Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, too, did away with the practice, and the central government followed suit. Another major reminder of inequality remains — the list of security exceptions at airports, of people who do not have to go through pre-embarkation checks. Most of them hold constitutional posts, but the head of “SPG protectees” is disturbingly capacious.
The Supreme Court ruling will presumably have implications for other states which allow former chief ministers to retain government accommodation. It suggests that public goods and preferments may be enjoyed while in office, but cannot be regarded as an earned privilege for a lifetime. The present judgement refers to property rights, but the principle may be extended to ensure that not only the trappings of office, but also its aura, do not linger beyond the tenure served, and do not confer continuing preferment. In effect, the Supreme Court has indicated that the equality guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution must trump all other concerns, and that the assumption of constitutional or political office is a temporary elevation not a lifelong entitlement.