The Delhi High Court’s decision - setting aside the disqualification of 20 AAP MLAs and referring the matter back to the Election Commission - has come as a huge relief to the party, to say the least.
The poll panel on January 19 had recommended disqualification of the MLAs for holding offices of profit. The AAP was quick to hit out at the poll panel, questioning its integrity and accusing it for pushing the BJP’s agenda.
Here’s a look at what the office of profit case is all about.
On March 13, 2015, the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government passed an order appointing 21 of its party MLAs as parliamentary secretaries. The Delhi government claimed that the MLAs will not take any remuneration and, therefore, their positions don’t come under the ambit of the office of profit.
The appointments were made to pacify MLAs who felt betrayed on being left out of the cabinet. It wasn’t possible for Kejriwal to include more ministers because of a constitutional amendment that puts a cap on the number of ministerial berths to 15 per cent of the strength of the House. The AAP government, which had a brute majority of 67 MLAs in the 70-member House, then retrospectively passed a bill, excluding parliamentary secretaries from the ambit of the office of profit law.
For the bill to become a law, the AAP government had to get an approval from the then president of India Pranab Mukherjee, who, in June 2016, withheld his assent on the advice of the Union home and law ministries.
Advocate Prashant Patel then filed a petition before the president asking for disqualification of the MLAs holding offices of profit. The president, in turn, asked the Election Commission for an opinion on whether or not to disqualify the MLAs. The EC said the petition was maintainable and that it would look into the matter. Fearing trouble from the EC, the AAP government in August 2017, tried to obtain a stay on the poll panel's proceedings from the Delhi High Court.
The high court, however, observed that since the EC had not started is deliberations, there was no possibility of staying them. On January 19, the Election Commission recommended that 20 AAP MLAs who were occupying the position of parliamentary secretaries should be disqualified. The Constitution prohibits legislators and parliamentarians from holding any position with monetary or other benefits. This clause known as the office of profit - is aimed at reducing conflict of interest situations for elected representatives.
However, there is no official definition of "office of profit" and it is at the discretion of the relevant authority to decide whether any particular post is such an office. The Supreme Court has also made a few observations on what defines an office of profit and observed that an office should have receivables attached to it to qualify as the same.
The Aam Aadmi Party has firmly maintained that the MLAs received no benefits in the form of vehicles, bungalow or salary for the position of parliamentary secretary, but whether or not they were able to exercise influence because of the position is something that remains debatable.
The Delhi High Court’s order has come at a time when the AAP is battling Opposition parties on one hand and the Modi government on the other. Its recent spats with the Centre, including the controversy surrounding the alleged assault on the Delhi chief secretary by AAP MLAs, has cast a shadow on the party’s image. Despite clarifications by the top leadership, the public's perception of the AAP seemed to be sliding.
The alleged midnight assault on Delhi’s top bureaucrat followed by the commotion inside the secretariat, where AAP ministers and their aides were assaulted, had people wondering what kind of government they had voted for.
Of late, Kejriwal has also been seen eating humble pie with a spree of apologies. With 33 defamation cases filed against him in 22 states, the AAP chief seemed to have decided that saying sorry was the easiest way out. On March 15, he apologised to Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia for accusing him of being involved in drug trade.
Surprisingly, Majithia accepted the apology and withdrew the defamation case. The apology, however, left many in the party miffed. As the Opposition ridiculed Kejriwal for apologising to his rivals, it emerged that the Delhi CM had written a letter to Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari, expressing "regret" over naming the BJP leader in the Aam Aadmi Party's list of "India's most corrupt".
The very next day, Kejriwal and Gadkari submitted a joint application to Patiala House court seeking withdrawal of the defamation case.
His next apology was directed towards senior counsel and Kapil Sibal’s son Amit Sibal. Kejriwal had alleged conflict of interest over Amit Sibal appearing for telecom major Vodafone in the apex court when his father was the Union communication minister. His apology was only duly accepted. With that, Kejiwal's public image took a severe beating.
The high court’s decision to set aside the Election Commission’s recommendation and the presidential notification has come as oxygen for the Aam Admi Party, which desperately needed to send out a positive message to the people of Delhi.
While Kejriwal may continue his apology spree, the party hopes that he won't be seen a weak leader, but as a politician who is willing to compromise with his ego for the good of the party.