On March 22, Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio appointed 20 legislators from the ruling coalition as advisors, each attached to one or more state government departments. The next day, the chief minister made another set of appointments, appointing six other legislators as chairpersons of public sector undertakings and mission mode programmes such as the Bamboo Mission.
Critics of the government say that these appointments could be bad in law, citing a July 2017 judgment by the Supreme Court striking down the appointment of parliamentary secretaries as unconstitutional.
They say the advisors and chairmen are on a par with parliamentary secretaries – positions that have been cause for controversy in Delhi under the Aam Aadmi Party government. A parliamentary secretary often holds the same rank as a minister of state, with the same entitlements, and is usually assigned to a particular department.
“The name may be different, but they will just enjoy the perks as parliamentary secretaries as they will run the portfolio assigned to them independently,” said Kezhokhoto Savi who is president of the Nagaland Voluntary Consumers’ Organisation, a Kohima-based civil society group that had earlier petitioned the state’s governor against the appointment of parliamentary secretaries by the previous government.
Savi, who is a lawyer, said that the appointments violated Article 164 (1A) of the Constitution. The article inserted under 91st Constitutional amendment in 2003 states that the number of ministers in a state, including the chief minister, cannot be more than 15% of the strength of the Assembly.
“This is unconstitutional, Article 164 (1 A) is there to limit the state cabinet so as to save public money,” he said. “When they had come to power, Rio has said no parliamentary secretaries, but yet they have appointed advisors, which is essentially the same.”
Earlier this month, Rio’s Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party took charge in Nagaland in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Soon after he was sworn in, Rio had told reporters that that he would not go against the law of the land by appointing parliamentary secretaries.
Governments in the North Eastern states have a long history of appointing parliamentary secretaries to sidestep the 91st Constitutional amendment. Analysts say that this allows them to spread the privileges of power around.
The Congress party also alleged that Rio’s appointments “made a complete mockery of the Indian Constitution”. The Nagaland Pradesh Congress Committee president K Therie said in spite of the constitution limiting the size of the cabinet to not more than 12 in Nagaland, “all 34 of the ruling side are engaged in some position or the other”. “Only nomenclature is different, the authority is same, all of them have control over one or more departments,” he said.
The primary opposition party, the Naga People’s Front, said it was examining the “legal implications of these appointments” and that it would “definitely address the issue”. Said its spokesperson Achumbemo Kikon, “We don’t want to do anything hurriedly, we will see on what basis they have been appointed, and what facilities they will get.”
The appointments have been shrouded in opacity so far. The official notifications, which Scroll.in has seen, do not mention any terms and conditions of the appointment or even the Act they have been made under. Both notifications were issued by the Nagaland government’s cabinet secretariat and ascribes the appointments to the chief minister.
Repeated calls and text messages to the chief minister’s office went unanswered.
The president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Nagaland unit, Visasolie Lhoungu, who was appointed as the chairman of the state’s Bamboo Board, claimed he was not sure about the details of the appointment and if the positions were of cabinet rank.
News reports by Dimapur-based dailies suggest that there was apprehension within the government prior to these appointments. Rio and his colleagues in the Nagaland cabinet are said to have consulted several legal experts in Delhi as well as Nagaland before deciding on appointing the advisors.
The Naga Tribes Council, which had filed a public interest litigation last September before the Kohima Bench of the Gauhati High Court against the appointment of advisors and parliamentary secretaries, claiming that they were unconstitutional in the wake of the apex court verdict of July 2017, said they would file a Right to Information request to gather more details about the latest appointments. “We’ll file an RTI and place the materials before court again, and it is for them to decide.”
In July 2017, when TR Zeliang had returned as the chief minister of the state following a rebellion within the ranks of the Naga People’s Front against incumbent chief minister Shurozelie Leizietsu, Zeliang had appointed 26 parliamentary secretaries and nine advisors.
Before the court could make a ruling on the petition, the Nagaland Assembly was dissolved as its term expired.