Political, not constitutional

Political, not constitutional

Three Deputy CMs

Laxman Sangappa Savadi

For the first time in its history, Karnataka will have not one, but three deputy chief ministers. While the post, like that of the deputy prime minister, does not have the sanction of the Constitution, its legal sanctity has nevertheless been upheld by the Supreme Court. The deputy PM and deputy CM are, however, mere ceremonial designations as their powers are on par with other cabinet ministers, no more.

Article 74 (1) lays down, “There shall be a council of ministers, with the prime minister at the head, to aid and advise the President.” The Salaries and Allowances of Ministers Act, 1952, makes a mention of the prime minister, cabinet minister, minister of state and deputy minister. At the state level, ‘prime minister’ is substituted with ‘chief minister’.

Thus, nowhere in the Constitution or any other Act, do˙the terms ‘deputy prime minister’ or ‘deputy chief minister’ find mention.

The first deputy PM of India was Sardar Vallabhai Patel, followed by Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram and Yashwantrao Chavan. All of them were administered the oath of office and secrecy as ministers and later designated as deputy PM through a presidential order. However, history was created in 1989 when Devi Lal took oath as deputy PM in the VP Singh government even as the then President R Venkataraman was swearing him in as a minister.

In his book, ‘Commissions and Omissions of Indian Presidents,’ Venkataraman recalled, “I asked my secretary to convey to VP Singh that Devi Lal could be sworn in as minister and later designated as deputy PM. But when I administered the oath as ‘mantri’, he insisted on reading it as ‘upa pradhan mantri’. I corrected him saying ‘mantri’ again, but the second time, too, he read it as ‘upa pradhan mantri’. It was fully displayed in the live telecast of the proceedings, but I did not want to create an ugly scene and therefore allowed Devi Lal to continue to proceed as he wished.”

The appointment of Devi Lal as deputy PM was challenged by K M Sharma (KM Sharma vs Devi Lal and Ors, 1990) on the ground that the oath administered to him was not in accordance with the “prescription of the Constitution.”

Relying on an earlier order of the apex court, the then Attorney General (A-G) Soli Sorabjee, argued that the oath comprised two parts—descriptive and substantial. As long as the substantial part is correctly followed, a mere mistake in the descriptive part does not violate the oath. The person taking oath makes an affirmation that he will bear true allegiance to the Constitution and uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India. Thus, the words that precede this portion are merely descriptive of the person taking the oath, the A-G contended.

Sorabjee also submitted that the Third Schedule of the Constitution, which specifies the format of the oath, does not make a separate mention of the prime minister either, as it only refers to ministers. However, it has been a practice for the designated candidate to take oath as prime minister. Admitting that there is no constitutional provision for deputy PM, the A-G submitted that the post is only descriptive.

Dismissing the writ petition, the court held, “Respondent 1 (Devi Lal) is just a minister like any other member of the council of ministers though he has been described as the deputy prime minister. The description of him as deputy prime minister does not confer on him any power of prime minister. It cannot, therefore, be said that the oath administered to him as deputy prime minister was not in accordance with the prescription of the Constitution.”

In 2018, Sekhar S Iyer, an academic, filed a similar PIL before the Karnataka High Court questioning the constitutional validity of the appointment of G Parameshwara as deputy CM on the ground that the Supreme Court did not lay down any law in the Devi Lal case but had only dismissed the petition by recording the A-G’s submission. Stating that the Supreme Court’s order was binding on the High Court, the bench dismissed the petition as “unnecessary litigation” and imposed costs on the professor.

At present, no set precedent is followed in the appointment of deputy PMs or deputy CMs. In 2002, LK Advani, who was already home minister in the Vajpayee government, was elevated as deputy PM through a presidential notification. Recently, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Jaganmohan Reddy drew attention by appointing five deputy CMs, the highest ever in any state in the country. In this case, the legislators were first sworn in as ministers and then designated as deputy CMs.

In Karnataka, the culture of deputy CMs started in 1992, when S M Krishna was appointed as deputy to the then chief minister M Veerappa Moily. Siddaramaiah held the post twice, first under JH Patel and later when Dharam Singh was the chief minister. In 2012, when Jagadish Shettar of BJP was in power, the state had two deputy CMs, R Ashoka and K S Eshwarappa. Now, the party has broken its own record by appointing three. The last deputy CM was Parameshwara in the JD(S)-Congress government.

The new deputy CMs will no doubt exert greater influence compared to their colleagues, but legally, their powers will be no more than that of other cabinet members. Their salary and emoluments will also be on par with ministers, though they may enjoy certain privileges like pilot and escort vehicles, zero traffic facility and a slightly higher slot in the order of precedence. In the end, the post of deputy CM exists only to serve political compulsions and not any constitutional obligations.

(The author is a political commentator based in Bengaluru)