Delhi HC Restores 20 Disqualified AAP MLAs Membership

Let me start shaking my pen by first and foremost pointing out that the Delhi High Court on March 23, 2018 in WP (C) No. 750/2018, Kailash Gahlot & Ors v Election Commission of India & Ors in which 20 AAP MLAs had filed a writ petition challenging the disqualification  reversed the disqualification of 20 Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLAs and restored their membership to the Delhi State Assembly in offices-of-profit case. A Division Bench of the Delhi High Court set aside the January 20, 2018 Presidential order and referred the case back to the Election Commission (EC) for a fresh hearing. This has definitely come as a shot in the arm for AAP at a critical time!

                                          While craving for the exclusive indulgence of my esteemed readers, let me inform them that a Division Bench of Delhi High Court comprising of Justice Sanjiv Khanna and Justice Chander Shekhar said that the January 19 Election Commission recommendation given to the President “is vitiated and bad in law for failure to comply with principles of natural justice”. The Bench ruled that, “There was a violation of natural justice and no oral hearing was given to the AAP MLAs before disqualifying them as legislators.” Valid point!

                                          It needs no rocket scientist to conclude that Delhi High Court has done no great favour to AAP MLAs. Delhi High Court has set aside their disqualification because the Election Commission did not give them a hearing as is the prescribed norm before recommending their disqualification to the President. It may be noted that the Delhi High Court had reserved its judgment on February 28 after the MLAs and the Election Commission had concluded their arguments!

                                           No wonder that AAP on learning of the judgment became overjoyed. Delhi Chief Minister and AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal described it as a victory of the truth. Kejriwal tweeted that, “The truth has triumphed. The people whom Delhi had voted as their representatives were wrongly disqualified.” The reaction of other AAP leaders was also like that of Kejriwal on expected lines.

                                   While craving for my esteemed readers exclusive indulgence, let me also inform them that  however, Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken said there was “no need for the 20 AAP MLAs to get elated as the court order has given only partial relief”. He added that the Delhi High Court had not “disputed the merit” of the case that “lakhs and crores of rupees had been spent by the AAP government on these MLAs in perks, as that of a Minister.” He also was quick to point out that, “The High Court has only remanded the case to the Election Commission for a final hearing and not set aside the President’s order as such.”

                                           To be sure, the Delhi High Court on March 23 asked why the Election Commission had not informed the AAP MLAs, facing disqualification proceedings, about the decision of one of the then commissioners, OP Rawat to rejoin the Presidential reference proceedings after his recusal earlier last year in 2017. The Delhi High Court minced no words in questioning the flip-flop of OP Rawat who is now the Chief Election Commissioner. A Bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Chander Shekhar remarked that the AAP MLAs should have been informed and told that Mr Rawat had agreed to rejoin and participate.

                                            Bluntly put, the Bench said explicitly that, “We would unhesitatingly and without any reservation hold that the rejoining or withdrawal of recusal by Mr OP Rawat should have been communicated and informed to the petitioners.” But that was not done. The Bench further said that, “This would have materially affected the response and reply of the petitioners…There is also difference between recusal and re-joining on withdrawal of the recusal. These were two separate stages and have different connotations and consequences.”                   

                                    It may be recalled that on April 19 in 2017, OP Rawat had recused himself from the reference proceedings after Delhi Chief Minister and party leader Arvind Kejriwal had questioned his independence. He later re-joined the reference proceedings on September 22, 2017. Rawat had become the Chief Election Commissioner in January this year. The Bench of Delhi High Court comprising of Justice Sanjiv Khanna and Justice Chander Shekhar had minced absolutely no words in stating most unambiguously that, “No one can act in a judicial capacity if his previous conduct gives ground for believing that he cannot act with an open mind and impartially.”     

                           It also cannot be lost sight of that another vitiating factor which vitiated the whole decision making process by the Election Commission of AAP MLAs was that Election Commissioner Sunil Arora who had not heard the matter and who assumed the office as late as September 2017 also signed the order. It is also a well settled principle of law that someone who does not hear the matter does not decide on it. But in this case it was violated by the Election Commissioner Sunil Arora as was also pointed out in the editorial of ‘The Hindu’ newspaper dated March 27, 2018 titled ‘Principle & procedure’.  

                               It may be recalled here that the 20 AAP MLAs had been appointed parliamentary secretaries to ministers in the Delhi government in March 2015 after the AAP’s stunning victory in the assembly elections. In September 2016, the Delhi High Court had itself ruled against this appointment and on January 20, President Ram Nath Kovind, on the Election Commission’s recommendation had disqualified all 20 for holding an office-of-profit. The Delhi High Court on January 24 had refused to stay the notification disqualifying the legislators but had restrained the Election Commission from taking “precipitate measures” such as announcing poll dates.

                           As things stand, in its order, the Delhi High Court said principles of natural justice had been violated since the legislators were not given opportunity to be heard. It said that, “Opinion of the ECI dated January 19 is vitiated and bad in law for failure to comply with principles of natural justice”. The Delhi High Court issued orders “quashing” of the opinion and the consequent order/notification dated January 20, 2018, for violation of principles of natural justice.

                                    Needless to say, the Bench said that, “These violations were the Election Commission’s failure to give oral hearing and opportunity to address arguments on merits of the issue whether the petitioners had incurred disqualification, failure to inform that Mr OP Rawat had expressed his intention to rejoin proceedings after his recusal and finally that Mr Sunil Arora had not participated and no hearing were held before him.” The then CEC OP Rawat had recused himself from cases related to the AAP after Kejriwal had questioned his independence on April 20, 2017, when Rawat was an Election Commissioner. Rawat agreed later to rejoin the proceedings on September 22, 2017 without informing the AAP. Arora had signed the January 19 recommendation to disqualify the MLAs.  

                                      It must be brought out here that while the Delhi High Court set aside the disqualification of 20 AAP MLAs on the ground that the Election Commission’s (EC) opinion was “bad in law” and against the principles of natural justice, former poll panel chief and former CEC AK Joti said that, “The legislators were given enough adequate opportunity to present their side of the case.” Joti was the Chief Election Commissioner when the Election Commission tendered its adverse opinion in the office-of-profit case to President Ram Nath Kovind. The opinion was given just two days before his retirement.

                                   It must also be brought out here that Joti also revealed while speaking with journalists that, “They were given sufficient opportunity to give their representation (in writing). But they did not give any representation. The first notice went in September and then another in November. So it’s not like an opportunity was not given. I don’t want to comment on the High Court’s order.”  

                                 Truth be told, the Delhi High Court Bench directed the Election Commission to hear the arguments again. It said that, “Order of remand is passed to the ECI to hear arguments and thereafter decide the all important and seminal issue: what is meant by the expression ‘office of profit held under the Government’.” The High Court also asked the Election Commission to “re-examine the factual matrix to decide whether the petitioners had incurred disqualification on appointment as parliamentary secretaries, without being influenced by the earlier order or observations on the said aspect in this order.”

                                 It is noteworthy that lawyer and petitioner Prashant Patel was the first to complain to then President Pranab Mukherjee in June 2015 that the MLAs holding the offices of Parliamentary Secretaries were in violation of the Constitution. He had sought their disqualification under Section 15 of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act, 1991. While the initial complaint was against 21 MLAs but Rajouri Garden MLA Jarnail Singh had resigned from his post to contest election against former Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal in 2017 state election of Punjab.

                                     In response, the Delhi Legislative Assembly had then passed the Delhi Memebr of Legislative Assembly (Removal of Disqualification) (Amendment Bill), 2015, excluding Parliamentary Secretaries from ‘office of profit’. But the President had refused to give assent to this Bill. It is of utmost significance that none other than Delhi High Court itself had struck down the posts of Parliamentary Secretaries.

                                   Again, in response, the MLAs had then approached the ECI, contending that it shouldn’t entertain the petition against them, claiming that the High Court had already set aside their appointment as Parliamentary Secretaries. But the ECI had rejected their contention in June 2017 and recommended their disqualification. The MLAs then scrambled to Delhi High Court again for interim protection. But the court refused to grant them relief and expressed displeasure over their conduct for two years during the pendency of the proceedings before the Election Commission of India. Justice Rekha Palli had rapped the MLAs for using their petitions before the High Court as a shield to avoid participating in the Election Commission of India proceedings. But during the pendency of the petition, President Ram Nath Kovind had approved their disqualification.                                    
                                          The Delhi High Court noted that, “We have upheld validity of reference made by the President. The President need not make a fresh reference.” Now whether Prashant decides to appeal against the Delhi High Court order to the Supreme Court or not remains in the realm of speculation. Only time will decide that what future course of action he takes. No doubt, he has devoted his full three years to this case which he himself candidly acknowledges also as he feels that his fight is not personal against anyone but is a fight for principles which was grossly violated in the case of these 20 AAP MLAs appointed as Parliamentary Secretaries! This despite the glaring fact that a Constitutional clause prohibits legislators or parliamentarians from holding any position with monetary or other benefits which comes under the definition of office of profit. This clause is aimed at reducing conflict of interest situations for public representatives.

                                     One thing is quite clear: The AAP MLAs have only got temporary reprieve by Delhi High Court and not a very big reprieve! Delhi High Court held categorically that, “Opinion of the ECI dated 19th January, 2018 is vitiated and bad in law for failure to comply with the principles of natural justice. Accordingly, Writ of Certiorari is issued quashing the said opinion dated 19th January, 2018 and the consequent order/notification dated 20th January, 2018 for violation of principles of natural justice, namely, failure to give oral hearing and opportunity to address arguments on merits of the issue whether the petitioners had incurred disqualification and also on account of failure to inform that Mr O.P. Rawat had expressed his intention to rejoin proceedings after his recusal and lastly because Mr Sunil Arora had not participated and no hearings were held before him.”

                                 In its concluding remarks, the Delhi High Court Bench also held categorically that, “Order of remand is passed to the ECI to hear arguments and thereafter decide the all important and seminal issue: what is meant by the expression “office of profit held under the government” and re-examine the factual matrix to decide whether the petitioners had incurred disqualification on appointment as Parliamentary Secretaries, without being influenced by the earlier order or observations on the said aspect in this order. The writ petitions are accordingly partly allowed in the aforesaid terms, without any order as to costs.” It goes without saying that the Election Commission of India will now abide by what the Delhi High Court has said and decide only after giving the AAP MLAs an opportunity to present their side of version also before announcing its own judgment on this all important issue!

Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,

s/o Col BPS Sirohi,

A 82, Defence Enclave,

Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,

Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.
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