Days after Maharashtra saw tables turn with a rebellion snatching the chief minister’s crown from Uddhav Thackeray, is Jharkhand headed towards a political crisis? It all started with Congress MLA Kumar Jaimangal accusing Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma of playing a major role in the horse trading of MLAs to topple the JMM-Congress coalition government. After Jharkhand MLAs were arrested with money in Bengal, a probe by the Bengal CID pointed to a link between Congress MLAs and Sarma, though the Assam CM denied the charges.
Now, it is chief minister Hemant Soren who is in the dock after the Election Commission (EC) recommended that he be disqualified as an MLA for violating electoral law by extending a mining lease to himself.
According to a report in news agency PTI, Raj Bhavan sources said the recommendation was made to Jharkhand Governor Ramesh Bais but there has been no official confirmation of the news yet. In fact when asked about the development, Bais told mediapersons that he will be in a position to comment on the issue once he takes stock of developments. “I was in AIIMS, Delhi for two days. I will be in a position to tell about any such decision when I reach Raj Bhavan,” he said.
On his part, Soren denied the charges and hit out at the BJP, saying: “It apparently seems that BJP leaders, including a BJP MP and his puppet journalists, have themselves drafted the ECI report, which is otherwise a sealed cover report.”
News18 takes a look at the controversy and the alternatives ahead for Soren:
What is the row over?
Former Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das of the BJP in February accused Soren of allotting the mining lease for a stone quarry, spread over 0.88 acres in Ranchi’s Angara block, to a company held by him in May 2021 and it getting clearance in June last year.
Shivshankar Sharma, an RTI activist, filed two PILs demanding CBI and ED probe into the Jharkhand mining scandal. Soren is also accused of investing in shell companies.
The BJP then approached the governor and sought Soren’s disqualification for granting the lease to himself. The governor, in turn, wrote to the Election Commission under Article 192 of the Constitution for its opinion.
Soren’s disqualification is also sought for violating Section 9A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which prohibits elected representatives from entering into any contract with the government for “supply of goods” or “execution of any works undertaken” by it.
In May this year, the EC had issued a notice to Soren, seeking his response to the complaint. News18 had earlier reported that Soren’s legal team concluded its arguments before the EC on August 12, following which the BJP gave a rejoinder. On August 18, both the sides gave their written submissions to the poll panel.
What is the concept of office of profit?
The concept was introduced to prevent conflict of interest for members of Parliament and legislative assemblies, who primarily hold government accountable, to that of the executive. Holding an office of profit is seen to make them vulnerable to government influence and may hamper their ability to perform their role properly.
It owes its genesis to the British Parliamentary model, which deems certain non-ministerial offices incompatible with membership of Parliament.
The Constitution provides for disqualification of lawmakers for holding the office of profit under Article 102 (1). As per interpretations in court judgments, a position that brings to the officeholder, who is also a lawmaker, financial gains or advantage or benefit can be defined as the office of profit, the Hindustan Times reported.
In 2004, Rajya Sabha member Jaya Bachchan was disqualified after her appointment as Uttar Pradesh Film Development Council chairperson. Though she did not get any money from the council, the Supreme Court was of the view that getting a driver, car and official accommodation amounted to remuneration from the government.
In 2006, the BJP sought disqualification of Congress president Sonia Gandhi from Lok Sabha on the grounds that she was holding an office of profit as chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC). Gandhi resigned from Lok Sabha, re-contested, and got elected again. In the meantime, NAC was included in the exemption list.
What is Soren’s defence?
Soren’s lawyers told the EC that the mining lease was not executed and he sought cancellation of the consent to operate it in February, which means he did not get any benefit from the lease. Soren contended that Section 9A was not applicable in this case as the mining lease is not a government contract.
What are Soren’s options now?
If the Governor announces the disqualification, Soren loses his assembly membership. This means he and his cabinet will have to resign. However, since one doesn’t need to be an MLA for the chief minister’s chair, Soren can simply retake his crown.
There is some confusion. If a legislator is disqualified under the anti-defection law, he cannot be minister until re-elected as MLA. But in Soren’s case, the disqualification is not under the anti-defection law but Section 9A of the Representation of People Act. Whether one needs to be re-elected for this too hasn’t been settled yet by any constitutional court.
The EC has to hold a bypoll within six months after Soren’s seat falls vacant. Soren can re-contest and get the seat back. However, the JMM-Congress alliance may have to elect someone else to be the chief minister if he is unable to occupy the chair until then. Soren can later return as chief minister.