President Ram Nath Kovind has accepted the Election Commission's recommendation to disqualify 20 MLAs of Delhi's ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for holding an 'office of profit' as parliamentary secretaries. The party's petition in court questioning the Election Commission proceedings in this regard will be heard only on March 20. The MLAs themselves are planning to file fresh pleas against the disqualification. But while the Delhi government headed by Arvind Kejriwal may have been hit hard, it won't fall since it still has 45 MLAs in the 70-member House. But the BJP and Congress have called for Kejriwal to resign on 'moral grounds'. This is hypocrisy, for many of the state governments run by these national parties also have appointed numerous parliamentary secretaries and have, just like the AAP attempted to do, exempted the post from the office of profit law retrospectively. But the Election Commission has chosen to act only against the AAP government.
The constitutional provision says that a person shall be disqualified for being chosen as, and for being a member of either the central or state legislature, if he holds any office of profit under the central or state governments. It was based on the principle that people's representatives will not be able to hold the government accountable to the legislature if they held an office of that very government from which they profited. Unfortunately, though, the law allows legislatures to write laws to exempt any post from its purview. Other state governments have gotten away by having legislatures pass such exemptions. The Delhi Assembly, too, passed such a law, but former President Pranab Mukherjee withheld assent to it since it did not have the nod of the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi - an appointee of the BJP-ruled Centre.
The AAP has decided to challenge the disqualification. It has questioned the timing of the EC's recommendation, coming as it did just days before Chief Election Commissioner A K Joti retired, and apparently without the MLAs and the Delhi government being given a hearing. The court will decide on the EC's recommendation on legal grounds, ruling whether the MLAs were indeed holding an office of profit under the Delhi government's appointment terms and whether the EC violated the principles of natural justice by not giving them a hearing. Legalities aside, the politics behind the whole exercise is thinly disguised. AAP's charges against the EC cannot be dismissed outright. As a constitutional body vested with extensive powers, it must provide a level playing field to all parties and demonstrate equal zeal in acting against other governments that have appointed legislators to offices of profit. Only by doing so will it prove to the public that it acted only on a principle.