Was The Dismissal Of Sujatha Singh Unconstitutional?
The swiftness with which the Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was dismissed from her prestigious post, six months before the end of her term, has, it is said, stunned the bureaucracy at Raisina Hill. The message from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to bureaucrats was unambiguous—shape up or ship out. But it has led to an important issue. Can the government peremptorily dismiss an officer serving a fixed term? This question was raised by a retired senior IPS officer. The idea of a fixed term was to ensure independence of the officer. The IPS officer argued that Singh could not be dismissed through a sudden order. Anyone serving a post of fixed term can be removed, according to him, only through a joint meeting of the two Houses and the resolution to sack the incumbent must be passed by two-third of majority.
But quite a few secretaries have in the past been asked to go, albeit there was no fixed term rule then. Foreign Secretary S. K. Singh was suddenly removed, so was another Foreign Secretary AP. Venkateshwar. He was sacked in a more insulting manner by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. On a question asked by the Pakistani paper Daily Jung, Gandhi said he could put the question to a new Foreign Secretary. This forced Venkateshwar to put in his paper. Regarding the constitutional question, a senior expert on public administration, said the term for two years was an administrative decision and order, the Constitution has nothing to do with the issue. “Governments must have the right to do what is best for administration. Maybe Singh was a part of an administrative decision.” Her removal, in fact, was being speculated in senior bureaucratic circles for over a month. But few, including diplomats in the external affairs ministry, had anticipated the manner in which she was dismissed.
In any case Singh has been dismissed and replaced by India’s envoy to the US, S Jaishankar. Even Manmohan Singh wanted Jaishankar to take over the Foreign Secretary post, but it is said Sonia Gandhi forced Singh’s appointment. She allegedly batted for Singh because of her father, presently a Governor, was IB chief and very close to the Family. But the fact is that Jaishankar would have been an ideal choice. Apart from being said to be very bright he has served in Russia, China and the US. Reports are that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was very pleased with his work on the draft that eventually paved the way for signing of the US-India Nuclear Treaty. Surprisingly, in a farewell email to colleagues Singh said she had sought early retirement from the government. The foreign secretary was the main point of interface with the political leadership, she added. But “it can never be about individuals. It has to be about institutions and how institutions interface and coordinate with each other,” she said. Singh is the third senior official to have been dismissed since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power at the Centre. At the end of November, the government had sacked Special Protection Group (SPG) chief K Durga Prasad, while Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) Avinash Chander was dismissed a fortnight ago. Also, mid to senior-level bureaucratic reshuffles have been carried out, the most talked about being the transfer of Arvind Mayaram from the key post of finance secretary to the less-sought tourism ministry and eventually, to the minority affairs ministry.
Both Prasad and Chander were on extensions given by the NDA government. Chander had little clue of the government’s decision until it was publicly announced. The defence ministry cut short his stint 16 months before the end of his term, with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar saying DRDO needed someone younger at the helm. In another signal to the bureaucracy, the ministry of urban development cancelled the Delhi Golf Club memberships of about two dozen serving and retired bureaucrats, after it was found they were accommodated “out of turn”.
Government sources claim any fears within the bureaucracy of arbitrary or even planned purging of those appointed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government are unfounded. Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Nalin Kohli denied “any political motive” behind the decision to cut short Sujatha Singh’s term. He said the government was within its right to change an officer, as previous governments had. “The government has its agenda and task cut out. Its work is there for the whole world to see. It has also been appreciated by many. The disconcert, if any, is within the Congress party,” he said.
A source in the government cited the case of Cabinet Secretary Ajit Kumar Seth, who had served in that capacity under the UPA government, before being given an extension by the NDA government. The PMO, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also had officers from the previous government, the source said, adding several departments were being managed by the bureaucrats appointed by the UPA government. A diplomat said that in any case no tears were shed at the ouster of Singh in contrast to the near rebellion in the IFS officers such as Veena Sikri when Shiv Shankar Menon was chosen Foreign Secretary.