Since the Governor of Manipur, Najma Heptulla has not acted yet in favour of the plea of the Congress party to disqualify the 12 MLAs on the grounds of office of profit, the options available to the Congress seem exhausted except approaching the President’s office.
Reports said that the Congress party has sought an urgent appointment with the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind on the issue of the disqualification of 12 MLAs, who were appointed as parliamentary secretaries in Manipur. The Rashtrapati Bhavan officially received the appointment sought by the Congress on March 11, reports added.
The representation to the President of India is signed by all Congress MLAs of Manipur, and 12 Congress MPs, All India Congress Committee (AICC) in-charge of Manipur Bhakta Charan Das stated while highlighting the Supreme Court order giving four weeks’ outer limit to decide all pending disqualification matters.
It also pointed out that there has been no response to the petition by the Congress to the Governor since October 2020, seeking the disqualification of the 12 MLAs on the grounds of office of profit under Article 191 and 192 of the Constitution of India.
Reports further added that the Congress MLAs also sought an urgent appointment with the Governor of Manipur on the same issue but there has been no reply to the appointment request from the Raj Bhavan.
The Congress MLAs led by former chief minister of Manipur and Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader, Okram Ibobi and Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) president, Govindas Konthoujam are said to be camping in Delhi presently, waiting for an appointment with the President of India, till the time of filing this story.
The Congress team is said to be armed with legal and constitutional details on the issue, and are aided by an AICC legal team comprising senior advocates Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Vivek Tankha and Narinder Hooda.
The last resort of the Congress party could be to urge the President of India following a number of media reports that the Election Commission sees ‘no ground for disqualification’ of the 12 Manipur MLAs of the ruling coalition led by BJP in the office of profit case.
The Print on March 2 published that the Election Commission (EC) seems to be in favour of the 12 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLAs from Manipur, who were facing disqualification in a 2018 ‘office of profit’ case for holding the position of parliamentary secretaries.
It is reported that while the law relevant to office of profit bars MPs and MLAs from holding a position under the government, the ruling MLAs did not seem to commit any violation as they had held the posts of parliamentary secretaries in the state under an exemption granted by two laws passed over the last decade.
The two laws are the Manipur Parliamentary Secretary (Appointment, Salary and Allowances and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2012, and the Manipur Parliamentary (Appointment, Salary and Allowances and Miscellaneous Provisions) Repealing Act, 2018. Both the laws no longer exist after the Manipur High Court declared them invalid and unconstitutional in a judgment on 17 September 2020.
Following the Manipur High Court order, the Manipur Congress had approached Governor Najma Heptulla seeking disqualification of the 12 ruling MLAs on account of holding the position of parliamentary secretaries, which qualified as ‘office of profit’ after the HC ruling.
It was also reported the Governor had sought the Election Commission’s views on the matter in October last year.
Article 191(1) of the Constitution says a person can be disqualified as MLA “if he holds any office of profit under the Government of India or the Government of any State specified in the First Schedule, other than an office declared by the Legislature of the State by law not to disqualify its holder”.
Reports added that a delegation of Congress leaders in December last year had also appealed to the EC to decide the matter of disqualification of 12 MLAs in the office of profit case arguing that the case of the Manipur MLAs called for disqualification. The Congress leaders had also made a reference to the Supreme Court order dated 26 July 2017 in the case of ‘Bimalangshu Roy Vs The state of Assam’, according to which appointing elected representatives of the land as parliamentary secretaries violates the law.
Moreover, the Supreme Court released a notice on February 12 this year in support of a written petition requesting directions from the Election Commission of India to give its opinion. Justice Nageswara Rao and Ravindra Bhat, a division of the Bench of Justice, considered a petition lodged by DD Thaisii, Congress MLA of Manipur, requesting guidance from the Election Commission to meet its constitutional duty under Article 192.
According to the petitioner, it is the statutory responsibility of the Election Commission to apply its advice to the Governor of Manipur and the absence of a constitutional duty to be fulfilled by a constitutional authority cannot be maintained. Accordingly, the Election Commission should be instructed to fulfil its task and apply its opinion to the Governor expeditiously, in the interests of justice, and to preserve the purity of the Legislative Assembly of Manipur.
In its plea, the petitioner submitted that, based on the comparison formed by the Supreme Court in its previous judgments, it was for the quasi-judicial body acting as a tribunal to determine the matter of disqualification within a reasonable span of time and to have an outer limit of 3 months. In the present situation, the legislative purpose of deciding on the disqualification of membership remains the same and the Election Commission is bound by statute to support the Governor within 3 months, i.e., the outer limit, in presenting his decision on the subject.
However, reports said that the Election Commission has opined in favour of 12 MLAs of the ruling coalition led by BJP, who were facing disqualification in a 2018 ‘office of profit’ case for holding the position of parliamentary secretaries.
The EC is learnt to have opined that since the Acts mentioned above were in force at the time they held the office, the MLAs could not be disqualified for holding office of profit retrospectively.
On the other hand, if the President of India also sees no ground for disqualification of 12 MLAs of the ruling coalition led by BJP, will the Congress party be exhausted of the options available to them or will they go to the Supreme Court again?
But, in case the President also does not see any ground to disqualify the 12 MLAs, Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren will breathe a sigh of relief getting the opportunity to manage and run his full term which is slated for completion on March 15, 2022.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics