Twenty lawmakers of the Aam Aadmi Party were disqualified on Sunday by the President acting on the recommendation of the Election Commission. The legislators have been disqualified for holding ‘offices of profit.’ They had been appointed ‘Parliamentary Secretaries’ by the Delhi government headed by AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal. The Delhi High Court set aside the appointments in 2016 and the Aam Aadmi Party would have perhaps thought that’s that. Expect that it wasn’t. The Election Commission acted on the letter of the law and now many observers and, of course, the Aam Aadmi Party, are claiming that the spirit of the law has been violated.
So did the Election Commission wake up one fine morning and say - “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down”? Anyone familiar with the goings-on of Nirvachan Sadan would agree that it's not how the Election Commission works at all. Most decisions are based on precedent and following the letter of the Constitution and the laws therein to the T. It is an institution that is admired for its impartial conduct and, come elections, it does not shy away from taking uncomfortable decisions in replacing top officials in a state, should they feel that such officials would impede the conduct of free and fair polls.
The appointments as Parliamentary Secretaries were made in March 2015, the AAP sought to exempt the MLAs by amending the provisions of the Delhi Members of Legislative Assembly (Removal of Disqualification) Act 1997, in 2016 — a year later. The bill seeking the amendments was struck down by the then President, Pranab Mukherjee.
So why then is the disqualification of these 20 MLAs being branded as an excess? Would similar questions have been raised if the members were from the Bharatiya Janata Party? Is it playing into the politics of Centre Vs State and then some? After all, Delhi’s state government has gone toe-to-toe with the Lieutenant Governor over the past 3-4 years and the relationship between this state government and the Centre has been tenuous, to say the least. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has branded the disqualification of AAP MLAs as ‘Tughlaqshahi of the worst order’. The reference to a former Sultan of Delhi is ironic - the Chief Minister is also branded as a despot by many within his own ranks and is capable of, shall we say, whimsical behaviour. AAP founder-member, and now a staunch Kejriwal critic, Kumar Vishwas says his opinion on the appointment of the parliamentary secretaries was disregarded.
AAP is now pinning its hopes on the Delhi High Court which will examine the decision not just on the principles of natural justice but also under the provisions of laws like the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act, 1991 and Article 239 AA of the Constitution which deals with Centre-State relations.
If the disqualification holds, then Delhi is heading for a mini-poll of sorts in six months to elect 20 lawmakers. The chief minister and his ilk can continue to cry foul, suggest the Election Commission is in cahoots with the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre and perhaps garner some sympathy (and votes too).
Meanwhile, even with its diminished strength of 45, the Aam Aadmi Party has a comfortable majority in the 70-member Delhi Assembly. Assuming that AAP loses the contest for all 20 seats, while it will be a loss of face, that majority wouldn’t change. This churn may also give Arvind Kejriwal a chance to consolidate his flock and inject some fresh loyalists in the party that has been badly plagued with dissension.
Not just an open revolt by Kumar Vishwas who is still smarting from being denied a Rajya Sabha ticket, but the Aam Aadmi Party also has Kapil Mishra and Devendra Sehrawat who are MLAs but have been suspended from the party. Some other lawmakers like Asim Ahmed Khan have been dumped as ministers. The by polls, if won, would not just serve as a referendum of Arvind Kejriwal’s policies in government but would also keep detractors at bay.
So what has the Chief Minister to lose from this disqualification? Nothing at all. No matter how the cookie crumbles, it is a win-win situation for Arvind Kejriwal.