Office of profit row: 20 Delhi MLAs disqualified, AAP says will take legal course
In a big blow to Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), President Ram Nath Kovind approved the Election Commission’s recommendation to disqualify 20 party MLAs for violating the law against holding office of profit, a government notification said on Sunday.
These 20 MLAs, including Delhi’s transport minister Kailash Gahlot, were parliamentary secretaries in the government, a post that the EC said can be considered an office of profit.
Rashtrapati Bhavan’s decision came a day before the Delhi high court is scheduled to hear the appeal of six AAP legislators against the poll panel on Monday. But on Sunday, the party quickly changed its tactics. Spokesperson Raghav Chadha said: “We will file a fresh petition in the high court challenging the government’s notification on disqualification.”
It was learnt that Kovind signed the file before leaving for a two-day trip to Gujarat on Sunday morning.
“The speed at which the President delivered a 120-page order raises suspicion about many institutions. Wish the same speed while the President and the lieutenant governor sit on legislations passed by the Delhi assembly,” said Saurabh Bhardwaj, another AAP spokesperson.
Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP, which swept the Delhi elections in 2015 and came to power with 67 MLAs in the 70-member assembly, is now reduced to 46 MLAs. One legislator, Jarnail Singh, had quit from the assembly last year to contest elections in Punjab.
Chief minister Kejriwal’s party still has enough MLAs to run the government, but it might be more vulnerable now with fewer seats.
The party has gone through internal rift, dissent and even disqualification of four ministers during its short stint in politics.
“They (BJP-led Centre) have victimised us by imposing fake cases on our MLAs. They conducted CBI raids on me and didn’t get anything and today they declared 20 of our MLAs disqualified,” Kejriwal said at a function in Najafgarh on Sunday.
Delhi BJP president Manoj Tiwari welcomed the disqualification, saying the President “has made a major contribution towards protecting democratic values”.
The Congress’s Delhi unit chief Ajay Maken demanded chief minister Kejriwal’s resignation and alleged that the BJP and the Election Commission “helped the AAP by delaying the disqualification process”.
All eyes will be on the Delhi high court now. Constitutional experts said the court has the power to set aside the Election Commission’s recommendation.
In case the court does not quash or stay the decision, fresh elections will have to be held in the 20 assembly seats.
“The President didn’t apply his discretion but did what the EC recommended. All such decisions and recommendations are always subject to legal scrutiny. The high court retains the power to turn it down,” said TK Vishwanathan, former secretary general of the Lok Sabha and former law secretary.
According to the government notification issued by the ministry of law and justice, “… having considered the matter in the light of the opinion expressed by the Election Commission of India, I, Ram Nath Kovind, President of India, in exercise of the powers conferred on me under section 15(4) of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act, 1991, do hereby hold that the aforesaid 20 Members of Delhi Legislative Assembly stand disqualified for being members of the said Assembly.”
“The appointment of the respondent MLAs as Parliamentary Secretaries by the GNCTD bypasses and frustrates the objective sought to be achieved by Section 15(1)(a) of the GNCTD Act, 1991 and is also against the principle of legislative oversight of the Government which is the basic tenet of Parliamentary form of Democracy,” the EC said in its exhaustive recommendation to the President.
In June last year, the poll panel said the AAP MLAs “did hold de facto the office of parliamentary secretaries”. The party reacted then by saying it respected the ruling and hinted that it might challenge it in court.
A parliamentary secretary assists a minister, and the office comes with perks as well as a measure of political influence. Often, MLAs who can’t be accommodated in the government are appointed to the post. AAP has maintained that the MLAs did not draw any financial remuneration.
The controversy dates back to the weeks after the party won a majority in the Delhi assembly elections and appointed the lawmakers as parliament secretaries in March 2015.
As protests over the appointments grew, the Kejriwal government sought to shield the MLAs by excluding the post of parliamentary secretary from the ambit of office of profit laws.
But former President Pranab Mukherjee refused to approve it, and referred a private petition in the matter to the Election Commission. Separately, reacting to another private petition, the Delhi high court struck down the posts of parliament secretary in September 2015.