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Ministers’ resignations

September 22, 2012

“THE most elementary qualification demanded of a minister is honesty and incorruptibility. It is, however, necessary not only that he should possess this qualification but also that he should appear to possess it.”

In the decades since Sir Ivor Jennings formulated this principle, it has been considerably weakened both in Britain as well as in countries which adopted the Westminster model; India for example. Its meaning is clear. Even if there is a credible suspicion — not actual proof — of wrongdoing, the minister ought to resign since he no longer appears to be upright.

In a criminal trial the accused is entitled to the benefit of doubt. In governance it is the people who have the right to insist that the conduct of an elected custodian, a trustee of public property, is above reasonable suspicion. The minister is also responsible to the people for any serious act of maladministration or gross error of judgment.

There is no code of rules governing resignations. Precedents yielded rules. It would be very difficult for even the most erudite lawyer to devise such a code for the simple reason that in recent years politics have corroded the rules in Britain and in India. Court censures survive as a ground for resignation. Last June Virbhadra Singh, a union minister, who was once chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, resigned once a special court in Simla framed charges of corruption against him and his wife.

He is yet to be pronounced guilty but the framing of charges by a court of law implied necessarily that a prima facie case did exist for him to answer. He had ceased to “appear” to be honest. But L.K. Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader, and for long an eager aspirant to the prime minister’s office, was not only charged by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) with conspiracy to demolish the Babri Masjid on Dec 6, 1992 but a magistrate committed the case to the sessions court, because he found that a prima facie case did exist. The sessions judge confirmed that by framing charges against him and others on Sept 9, 1997.

In May 1998, Advani became home minister in the BJP-dominated National Democratic Alliance regime, in charge of the CBI.

A central minister who died recently, Vilasrao Deshmukh, did not resign despite severe censure by the Supreme Court, last year, for obstruction of justice when he was chief minister of Maharashtra. Politicians’ comments on resignations reveal the sorry pass to which matters have come. The claim that the delinquent resigned to “uphold the highest moral standards” is commonly made by party supporters. One oft-repeated plea is that the case was “politically motivated”.

People still recall with nostalgia the case of Lal Bahadur Shastri who became prime minister on Nehru’s death in 1964. Shastri had resigned as railways minister in 1956 after two successive accidents in each of which 112 and 114 people were killed.

In Britain the Crichel Down affair is regarded as the classic case. Way back in 1937, a piece of land was acquired for use as a bombing range and later transferred to the ministry of agriculture. It was administered by an independent Agricultural Land Commission. Applications from local farmers were overlooked and the land was given to the Crown Lands Commission. There was considerable bungling in the Lands Commission and much worse by men of the Crown Lands Commission. The agriculture minister Sir Thomas Dugdale appointed Sir Alan Clark, Q.C., to conduct an inquiry. The latter found two officials guilty of “improper” attempts at a cover-up, but no “personal dishonesty”.

On July 20, 1954 Dugdale spoke in the House of Commons: “I, as minister, must accept full responsibility to parliament for any mistakes and inefficiency of officials in my department, just as, when my officials bring off any successes on my behalf, I take full credit for them. Any departure from this long established rule is bound to bring the civil service right into the political arena...; It should not be thought that this means that I am bound to endorse the actions of officials, whatever they may be, or that I or any other minister must shield those who make errors against proper consequences.” After “rendering account to parliament,” he announced his resignation.

Two principles were affirmed by this case: Ministerial accountability for maladministration and also for the mistakes of civil servants, albeit of a serious kind. This latter rule has been overlaid with several dicta. The rule on accountability for maladministration has suffered some erosion. Despite public outrage James Prior, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, refused to resign when 38 Irish Republican Army prisoners escaped from a maximum security prison in 1983. He went so far as to whittle down the Crichel Down precedent. His argument was rejected though he survived in office.

Errors in judgment in the realm of foreign policy have led to resignations by two eminent foreign secretaries. Sir Samuel Hoare resigned over his pact with the French foreign minister Pierre Laval in 1935 to reward Italy’s aggression against Ethiopia by giving it a part of its territory. Public outcry forced the resignation. Lord Carrington resigned in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands because he had continued the talks ignoring signs of imminent invasion.

The decline in standards is reflected in two statements. On Jan 9, 1997 Bihar’s chief minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, charged with corruption, said: “Where is it written that I should resign? Have I been elected by the CBI? No charge-sheets are filed, I would go to the people’s court.” (In the face of escalating charges of corruption, Yadav ultimately did tender his resignation.)

Six days later he won enthusiastic support from a former prime minister Chandra Shekhar who said, “There is nothing in the constitution which compels a charge-sheeted person from not holding the office of chief minister.”

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.