Soldiers and Public Servants in Politics

Former Army chief General V K Singh being welcomed into the party fold by BJP president Rajnath Singh.
Former Army chief General V K Singh being welcomed into party fold by BJP president Rajnath Singh

There is something utterly unseemly about a public official joining a political party soon after retirement or after quitting government service


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HERE are, in the main, two kinds of cases of conflict of interest; an apparent one and a concealed one. The apparent one is when a minister or other public official indulges in activity which conflicts with his public duties, for example a minister or official doing business. The concealed one is when he secretly yearns for an outside job, and switches over in indecent haste to take over that job after leaving the official post.

The first is easy to detect; not so the second. There is something utterly unseemly about a public official joining a political party — generally the one perceived to be a winner — soon after retirement or even after his resignation from the public post.

Last week General V. K. Singh, who retired but recently as the chief of army staff, joined the BJP. A voluble commissioner of the police, Satyapal Singh, resigned from his post on Jan 30, two years ahead of retirement. A couple of days later he joined — you guessed it — the BJP.

The Congress has also kept its doors open to such entrants. In 1984, a couple of members of the Indian Foreign Service joined it and rose high in government. In 2004 another such retiree followed suit.

There cannot be a life-long ban on entering politics or accepting a job in a business concern. It is the immediacy of the transition which causes concern. What were such people up to when in service and what was their outlook? The same applies to serving civil servants and diplomats.

An academic, Shekhar Singh, who worked at the Planning Commission, suggests basic reforms. In his opinion, the fear of civil servants divorcing the idea of impartiality well before they quit service was real.

The Election Commission called for a cooling off period of one to two years before a civil servant can enter politics. An existing rule requires officials to take permission if they want to take up a private job within a year of leaving the government. But the law ministry rejected the proposal, citing a retired officer’s rights. This is sheer nonsense. Article 19(1)(d) guaranteeing the fundamental right to form associations or unions is subject to “reasonable restrictions” imposed in the interests inter alia of “morality”.

Two gross cases in the past concerned a chief justice of India, K. Subba Rao, and a chief justice of Bombay, M.C. Chagla. Both were censured by M.C. Setalvad, the first and best attorney general of India. The Law Commission of India had expressed the unanimous view that the practice of judges looking forward to or accepting employment with the government after retirement could affect the independence of the judiciary. It therefore recommended that a constitutional bar should be imposed. M.C. Chagla, who was a member of the commission, concurred.

Setalvad writes: “He had, however, always yearned to be in politics, and had while chief justice expressed political opinions which a judge ought not to. He was so keen to get into politics that soon after the report was signed by him, he resigned his office to become India’s ambassador to the United States.”

In the general elections of 1967, the Congress lost its hold over a majority of the states. Presidential and vice-presidential elections were soon to be held. The opposition parties united and put forward an opposition candidate for the presidentship, the Chief Justice K. Subba Rao.

Setalvad remarks: “[the] acceptance of such a candidature by the chief justice of India and his agreeing to contest the election would, in my view, be an act of grave impropriety. … It was authoritatively reported that representatives of the opposition parties had met the chief justice who had agreed to contest the election on their behalf, even though he had not at the time resigned the office of chief justice.”

Chagla joined the Congress and became a minister while Subba Rao participated in an RSS rally. Evidently political preferences lurked in their minds even when they were judges.

The US Congress enacted the Ethics in Government Act, 1978, to impose severe curbs to control “post-employment conflict of interest” on officials. They pertain to lobbying and the like and not to participation in politics. The logic behind a “cooling off period” before accepting a job in business surely applies also to an official joining a political party no sooner than he demits his post.

It is not unreasonable to impose a ban on joining a political party for, say, a mere year after resignation or retirement. The honest crusader will not be deterred. The adventurer will have second thoughts before he throws his hat in the political ring.–Courtesy Dawn

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