Calcutta, March 1: Work culture in Bengal has struck so deep a root that a minister will not vacate his chair as long as a Constitution clock keeps ticking in letter, not necessarily in spirit.
Never mind minister Humayun Kabir lost an Assembly election yesterday.
Kabir, who finished third in the bypoll at Rejinagar in Murshidabad, said after a meeting with Mamata Banerjee today that the chief minister had asked him to continue in office.
“Didi has told me to continue in office till May 19 when I will complete six months as minister without being an elected member of the Assembly,” Kabir said. “She told me not to worry and continue working.”
What transpired at the meeting — Mamata met Kabir after a three-hour wait — is not known.
Trinamul all-India general secretary Mukul Roy said there was no problem with Kabir continuing as a minister. “The time for his stepping down from the cabinet has not come yet. He can continue as minister. The chief minister will decide on his future,” Roy said.
This is the first time in recent memory in Bengal that a minister has lost a bypoll — which means it has thrown up a situation that the founding fathers did not appear to have foreseen.
Article 164 (4) of the Constitution says: “A minister who for any period of six consecutive months is not a member of the legislature of the state shall at the expiration of that period, cease to be a minister.”
The article was included to ensure that ministers get elected within six months of taking the oath of office.
However, the drafters had not foreseen that a Congress MLA would defect to the Trinamul Congress, resign from his seat to escape disqualification, become a minister and contest from the same seat before the six-month deadline.
The twist in the till-now familiar tale came when the minister lost the election. Kabir is now citing rules, presumably the one that says ministership will cease “at the expiration of that period” (six months).
Kabir has taken care to calculate when the six months will be over — May 19 — irrespective of an intruding annoyance called the byelection result.
An outside chance still exists for Kabir to try to get elected if a seat falls vacant now for some unpredictable reason. But the window is too narrow as May 19, Kabir’s deadline, is just two-and-a-half months away.
Although no minimum time has been set to fill a vacant seat (the outer limit is six months), Election Commission sources in Delhi said a fresh election in two-and-a-half months is not easy to organise.
The Union cabinet has some instances of ministers from the Rajya Sabha staying on while waiting for a fresh berth in the Upper House. But few veterans could recall an example of a minister staying on after losing a direct election.
The closest to such a thing happened when Shivraj Patil was made Union minister a few days after he lost the Lok Sabha poll. But he soon became a Rajya Sabha member.
Minister Kabir does not have such an option because Bengal has a unicameral legislature and plans for a bicameral House did not take off.
If Kabir looks west to Jharkhand, perhaps he will have a change of mind. Shibu Soren had resigned as chief minister when he lost a bypoll.
A constitutional expert in Delhi felt the minister need not resign but was morally bound to do so. “Under the Constitution, the minister is not bound to resign even after losing an election,” said former additional solicitor-general and senior counsel Amarender Sharan. “Where do you find morality today in our political leaders? Morally, they have to resign,” Sharan said in response to a question.
However, Election Commission counsel Meenakshi Arora said: “If a minister has lost the election, he is under a constitutional obligation to resign. He is also morally supposed to resign. The option for him now is to resign, get elected and join the cabinet.”
This is not the first time nominated members are putting their work before other inconvenient details. Several members of Mamata’s culture clan were reluctant to resign from the railway committees even after Trinamul left the UPA-II government.