AAP’s Ripple Effect; yet to unfold

As parliamentary secretaries have a position equivalent to that of minister of state and are entitled to perks and allowances, they are said to hold an office of profit

AAP’s Ripple Effect; yet to unfold

Yashwardhan Joshi

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi is facing the worst crisis in its history. What if Delhi High Court upholds the disqualification of 20 of its legislators for holding an office of profit?

The AAP government will not fall as a result since the party will still have 45 MLAs in a house of 70, way above the majority mark. But it will surely suffer a loss of face, political observers say.

But the bigger question is why did the party that came to power on the mandate to rid politics of corruption chose to walk on the path of nepotism by appointing 21 MLAS (one resigned to fight the Punjab Assembly elections) as parliamentary secretaries, with an office of profit.

The answer may lay in precedence and a law that limits the size of the Council of Ministers to 10 per cent of the strength of the Assembly– 15 per cent in other States.

Parliamentary secretaries, which were earlier appointed to assist the chief minister or senior ministers, are now appointed to quell disgruntlement among the legislators who do not make it the Council of Ministers because of the constitutional restrictions to the size of ministries.

As parliamentary secretaries have a position equivalent to that of minister of state and are entitled to perks and allowances, they are said to hold an office of profit.

Many State governments have appointed parliamentary secretaries in the past and many are still doing it.

But then why has misfortune fallen on the AAP government? Why has the Election Commission disqualified 20 AAP MLAs , whereas some States continue to go scot free?

It is because some States have amended the rules that keep some posts out of the purview of office of profit, and made the appointments later, such as Rajasthan and Pudducherry.

In some States, such as West Bengal, Punjab, Haryana, Telengana and Goa, the appointments were struck down by the respective high courts, while in Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram, the appointees resigned after the court order.

Some State governments had appointed parliamentary secretaries in the past, such as the BJP governments of Vijay Rupani and the Anandiben in Gujarat, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh till 1992, BJP’s Arjun Munda government in Jharkhand in 2005, and the previous Congress governments in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Some of these appointments were challenged in court but many went unchallenged.

In the case of Delhi, it is said the AAP government first appointed party legislators as parliamentary secretaries and then sought to amend the rules to keep them out of the scope of office of profit.

The appointments were made in March 2015, and the Bill to amend the relevant law was passed in 2016. The amendment Bill could not turn into a law as it was struck down by then President Pranab Mukherjee.

But AAP leader Manish Sisodia says that Acts are not always important in the process of governance. “You do a lot through notifications and later legitimise it through a law”, he defends his government.

He insists that the charges against the MLAs are false as they were not given any government vehicles, bungalows or salary. “They were working without getting any benefits with the passion to make a contribution to the development of the city”, he said.

According to AAP, the post of parliamentary secretaries as it existed in Delhi do not entitle the MLAs to any extra privileges. It just gives them the extra powers to carry out certain functions that they could not carry out ordinarily, such as surveying schools outside their constituencies.

The disqualified MLAs also argue that parliamentary secretary is a “mere post” as opposed to an office. The holders of the post are only carrying out an additional function to assist governance. They do not have any executive powers and so aren’t responsible for decision-making, unlike ministers, they contend.

But the Election Commission holds a different opinion.

If Delhi High Court concurs with the poll body’s opinion, then AAP’ s number in the legislative Assembly will be reduced by 20. That would mean a mini-election within six months.

But the court’s decision will also have a bearing on those States, particularly BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh, where MLAs hold an office of profit as parliamentary secretaries, and where the decision on their disqualification is pending.

If the Delhi decision is repeated in Chhattisgarh, where the decision on the disqualification of 11 MLAs is pending before Chhattisgarh High Court, then the Raman Singh-led BJP government will have to go as its strength in the 90-member Assembly will be reduced to 38, way below the majority mark.

Yashwardhan Joshi is a Journalist of long standing and commentator on issues of Administration and Social Issues.

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