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Election panel divided on Sonia Gandhi

The Election Commission by a majority opinion has rejected the demand for disqualification of Sonia Gandhi as a Member of Parliament for receiving a foreign award. The poll panel has been in the news for reasons other than the conduct of elections in the recent past, report Chetan Chauhan and Nagendar Sharma.

delhi Updated: Apr 20, 2009 02:31 IST

Chetan Chauhan and Nagendar Sharma

New Delhi, April 19

Divisions in the Election Commission (EC) resurfaced on the eve of Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami’s retirement, as his two colleagues rejected a petition seeking Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s disqualification as an MP for receiving an honour from another country.

Election Commissioners Navin Chawla and S Y Quraishi are learnt to have rejected Gopalaswami’s view by 2 to 1 that the complaint against Gandhi, 62, needed to be probed further.

Gopalaswami, who retires on Monday, is understood to have pressed for an inquiry against Gandhi for having received the Order of Leopold, the second highest civilian honour in Belgium, during a visit in November 2006.

The EC has sent its findings on the matter to President Pratibha Patil, who will take a final decision.

The commission is understood to have stated that the honour from the Belgium government was a mere decoration in recognition of Gandhi’s public service and nothing more.

Gopalaswami refused to divulge details of the meeting.

But he confirmed that it was for the president to take a final call on the matter. “The final decision will be taken by the President,” he said. “So until the decision is taken, there can be no discussion on this.”

The controversy over the Belgian honour began with a complaint filed by a Kochi-based lawyer, R. Rajah, who said accepting a title from a foreign country meant owing allegiance to that particular country, which is in violation of the Constitution. The EC issued a notice to Gandhi in May 2008 asking her to explain. Even that was a split decision taken by a 2-1 vote.

In replies to the commission, the external affairs ministry, the Belgian government and Gandhi herself said the honour was only a decoration given for her service for promoting peace and democracy.

“The award cannot be described as the acceptance of a title from any foreign country,” the ministry told the EC.

Gopalaswami is understood to have insisted that the award was a title. His colleagues in the panel did not agree. Under Article 102 of the Constitution, accepting a decoration is allowed, but the president’s approval is necessary for accepting a title.

The poll panel has been in the news for reasons other than the conduct of elections in the recent past. In January, Gopalaswami had recommended the sacking of Chawla to the government, on the grounds of his “partisan conduct.” The government had rejected the recommendation and publicly snubbed Gopalaswami. With his tenure now over, Chawla is now the new EC boss and will supervise the conduct of four phases of the ongoing general elections.