The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has commenced preparations for the byelections to be held in 20 Assembly segments of the national capital later this year, following the Election Commission’s reported recommendations to the President on Friday that the 20 MLAs who had been appointed Parliamentary Secretaries by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in March 2015, stood disqualified. Simultaneously, the party is also seeking legal assistance to challenge the Commission’s order, which, according to its spokespersons, was passed without giving a chance to the affected parties to plead their case.
However, S.K. Sharma, adviser to the petitioner, Prashant Patel, and former secretary of the Delhi Legislative Assembly maintained that the AAP, instead of directly answering the Election Commission’s queries, posed counter questions so as to delay the decision, which, normally, should have been made within two or three hearings. The recommendation to the President was sent after repeated reminders to AAP failed to elicit pointed responses to the questions that had been brought up by the supreme poll body. The AAP, on its part, has stated that it would move the Delhi High Court and if need be, the Supreme Court to seek justice.
Sources in the AAP said that it was prepared fully to contest the polls if matters come to that point. “We are not scared of going to the people who will give a befitting reply to both the BJP and the Congress that have been demanding the resignation of Arvind Kejriwal on moral grounds.” Both the BJP under Sahib Singh Verma and the Congress under Sheila Dikshit too had appointed Parliamentary Secretaries, who were neither prevented from occupying office, nor disqualified. “It is evident that there is a conspiracy against us.” None of the Parliamentary Secretaries in the past, appointed by West Bengal, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and other states, who were made to leave office on the court’s directions, lost their membership. In plain-speak, why is the AAP being singled out?
Politically, the EC’s recommendations may have taken the AAP leadership by surprise, but definitely will have no bearing on the stability of the Delhi government. Even after disqualification, Kejriwal would continue to have the support of 45 MLAs, ten more than the halfway mark in the 70-member Delhi Assembly. AAP sources said that the BJP would be reluctant to face the polls since there is a strong anti-BJP sentiment in the capital in the wake of sealing drives being undertaken in various markets as well as the overall disenchantment amongst traders and other sections of the city. Similarly, the Congress would be on the defensive while facing the elections since it has lost its core voters’ base and the defeat here would reflect on the state of affairs under its new president Rahul Gandhi. Citizens would see through the BJP game and all the AAP MLAs would be reinstalled once the elections take place, a senior leader stated.
According to S.K. Sharma, who guided the petitioner throughout, the AAP has no case before the Election Commission. The Commission had put forth pointed queries to the Delhi Chief Secretary for ascertaining whether the position of Parliamentary Secretary existed as per the rules and the Constitution and whether those who had been appointed accrued any benefits. After showing initial reluctance, the Chief Secretary was categorical in his reply and stated that such a post did not exist, neither under the Constitutional provisions as applicable to Delhi nor under the rules of business.
The Chief Secretary further furnished details of the expenditure incurred by the Public Works Department (PWD) in acquiring tables, chairs and other equipment for the designated Parliamentary Secretaries. The PWD had also spent a sum of Rs 4 lakh on constructing an office on the seventh floor of the Delhi Secretariat. The AAP government was asked to comment on the Chief Secretary’s statement, yet kept avoiding the issue by employing diversionary tactics like queries regarding who would be hearing their plea. Friday’s ruling was given after the AAP failed to reply to the Commission’s questions.
S.K. Sharma said that the MLAs would stand disqualified the day the President grants his consent. It, therefore, would be up to the Election Commission to order the byelections within six months from the day the MLAs cease to be members. The AAP functionaries disagreed with this opinion and said that even after the President accorded his approval, it was the Speaker alone who was empowered to declare the seats vacant. However, Sharma, who was the secretary of the Delhi Assembly refuted that there was any such requirement.
In the past, there has been considerable debate on why the BJP and the Congress were allowed to have Political Secretaries while they were in office. The current Delhi Congress president, Ajay Maken, was Parliamentary Secretary to Sheila Dikshit, who subsequently, during her long tenure, also appointed Ramakant Goswami, Naseeb Singh, Anil Bhardwaj, Tarvinder Singh Marwah, Surinder Kumar and Mukesh Sharma as her Parliamentary Secretaries. Similarly, Sahib Singh Verma had nominated Nand Kishore Garg in the same capacity. If these gentlemen continued to hold the office for whatever period, it was unconstitutional. However, since no one came forward to challenge their appointment plus there seemed to be an understanding between the Congress and the BJP, the incumbents continued in their positions.
According to the Constitution, Delhi can have only seven ministers, which is 10% of the total strength of the Assembly. In larger states, it is 15%. According to Parliamentary rules’ interpretation, as provided by the Lok Sabha Secretariat, a Parliamentary Secretary is equivalent to a deputy minister and hence there is no way Delhi can have more than seven ministers.
In the 1950s, much before the current provisions came into effect in 1993, Delhi’s first Chief Minister Chaudhury Brahm Perkash had to seek the resignations of his three Parliamentary Secretaries—H.K.L. Bhagat, Shanta Vashisht and Shiv Charan Gupta, after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked him to do so. It was a time when Part C states existed in the Constitution and Delhi, Ajmer, Simla were amongst them.
Thus, 2018 would witness a high-ranking contest between the AAP on one hand, and the BJP and the Congress on the other. The fight could be billed as a referendum on AAP’s governance in the capital. It would set the stage for the Parliamentary polls confrontation in 2019 to determine the most favoured party in Delhi.