Does the Prime Minister have a constitutional duty to ensure that he only appoints people without criminal records to his cabinet? And if the constitution is silent on the matter, should the judiciary make pronouncements on the continuing criminalisation of the political class in India?

Early on Wednesday, a constitution bench of the Supreme Court decided on both these issues while hearing Manoj Narula vs the Union of India. Narula had filed a PIL in 2005, contending that four chargesheeted ministers, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mohammed Taslimuddin, MAA Fatmi and Jai Prakash Yadav, should be dropped from the cabinet.

The court advised the prime minister and the chief ministers of states not to include individuals facing trial for criminal charges in their cabinet. But it refrained from imposing a directive upon the executive, confirming that the constitution did not restrict any elected legislator from being appointed a minister.

Many had believed that the Supreme Court would take a firmer position on the issue. After all, a number of pertinent developments have occurred in the nine years since the PIL was filed.

In July last year the Supreme Court came down heavily on politicians with criminal antecedents, ruling in separate cases that convicted legislators and those in lawful custody would be barred from contesting elections. Only a few months later, in February this year, the Law Commission’s 244th Report discussed the alarming criminal presence in politics: it estimated that one-third of MPs and MLAs had criminal charges pending against them.

Delicate matter

But the question of the court issuing directives to the prime minister is both delicate and critical. It involves interpreting Articles 75 and 164 of the constitution, which deal with the advice tendered to the president and governor by the prime minister and chief minister. The president is bound to act on the advice of the prime minister, so it is near incumbent upon him to assent to the prime minister's choice of cabinet ministers. Refusal to do so would trigger a constitutional tussle.

In this case, the court had to decide whether the constitution imposed any implied limitations on the advice the prime minister tendered to the president. It had to rule on whether there could be a prohibition on ministerial appointments given to people with chargesheets and those facing ongoing criminal prosecution.

The Indian constitution is silent on any such disqualification. During the Constituent Assembly debates, KT Shah pressed for a specific provision to this effect, but Ambedkar and others argued against him, contending that doing so would undermine the trust and authority the constitution vested in the prime minister. There was, thus, a void, that the court was called upon to fill it up. It could have have used the present prime minister as a reference point, if it decided, but it focused on the constitutional position, prestige and authority of the office instead.

Respecting PM's judgment

The prime minister, by virtue of the immense trust the constitution vests in his position, is duty bound to act in a manner consonant with the highest standards of public integrity, the judges said. The people have a legitimate expectation that this will be the norm rather than the exception. It was with this in mind that the court reposed its faith in the prime minister’s wisdom and judgment.

One could criticise the judges for being idealisitic. The present government has not painted itself in glory as far as defenestrating tainted ministers and politicians is concerned. The previous prime minister, Manmohan Singh, expressed his inability to keep out criminally tainted politicians because of the compulsions of running a coalition government – of course ignoring various politicians accused of malfeasance in his own party. It was understandable, then, that many eagerly awaited measures from the court.

But that would be shortsighted. By emphasising the exalted duty of the prime minister and his constitutional obligations, the court has bound the government to the highest standards of integrity. It should be praised for exercising what could be termed deft caution.