Calcutta, Dec. 13: Questions of constitutional propriety have cropped up after a bill was passed today to modify a British era law and arm the Bengal chief minister with the power to appoint MLAs as parliamentary secretaries enjoying the status of ministers of state.
The bill — the plan for such a move was reported by the daily Ebela on Saturday — throws up a juicy carrot at a time voices of dissent have begun to rise in the Trinamul Congress.
The West Bengal Parliamentary Secretaries (Appointment, Salaries, Allowances and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 2012, states that the parliamentary secretaries would enjoy the “rank and status” of a minister of state or deputy minister and function “as an intermediary channel between the administrative secretaries and ministers”.
Although no number has been specified in the bill, the reference to ministers and secretaries means that at least 37 such parliamentary secretaries can be appointed if the chief minister wishes so. Bengal now has 37 cabinet ministers.
The MLAs who become parliamentary secretaries have to give up their legislator pay but they will get the remuneration and perks of a minister of state. A minister of state can earn at least Rs 38,000 a month, excluding many other perks, by attending office. An MLA earns a minimum Rs 16,000, excluding some allowances, a month.
The passed legislation will require the assent of the governor before it becomes a law. The Left has sought governor M.K. Narayanan’s intervention.
The bill was passed in the Assembly today in the absence of the Opposition, which alleged it was not given adequate time to assess the implications. The Left said a similar measure had run into legal trouble in Goa and Himachal Pradesh.
A senior lawyer The Telegraph spoke to felt that some provisions raise questions of constitutional validity. (See chart)
A legal minefield appears to lie around the provision for the oath of secrecy. The Bengal bill says a parliamentary secretary shall take “an oath of office and secrecy in such manner as may be prescribed”.
Lawyer Arunava Ghosh said: “The new law will prescribe the manner in which such oath of office and secrecy will be administered. But it must be remembered that the Constitution of India is always superior to a state law. I make this observation because a minister has taken the oath of office and secrecy under the Constitution of India. So, the oath of secrecy under the Constitution cannot be infringed on by any law made by the state legislature.
“But here we are seeing that the secrecy of a minister is being infringed upon by a state law since he will have to share his office’s secrets with a person appointed through a state law. This is ultra vires of the Constitution.”
The post of parliamentary secretaries was created during British rule in 1919 but has rarely been filled since Independence. The proposed law limits the post to MLAs.