| PICTURE SPEAK|
|NO RUBBER STAMP: Kalam (right) with Manmohan |
In the past, there have been sporadic skirmishes between the President and the executive. But they mostly happened when the occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan was a proactive ex-politician like Giani Zail Singh or K.R. Narayanan, who during his tenure on Raisina Hill never tried to hide his hostility towards the BJP-led NDA government. On May 30, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam showed that he too was not a rubber stamp-like Constitutional head by refusing to approve the office-of-profit Bill. It was an unexpected response that sent tremors across the political establishment, especially the ruling Congress and its leftist allies.
The next day, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was left to explain the matter to the President and somehow get his consent for the Prevention of Disqualification (Amendment) Bill 2006. The BJP, which passed a similar bill in Jharkhand last year, accused the Centre of pushing the envelope too far. Armed with support from UPA allies and the Left, the Congress had little to worry about over the questions raised by Kalam while returning the bill to the Government. With 43 members across different parties fearing disqualification from Parliament and 200 others from state legislatures facing a similar fate, there was cross-party pressure on Law Minister H.R. Bharadwaj to hurriedly draft a Bill. Legislative memberships of powerful representatives of the ruling class, including 11 MPs from the Left Front, had been challenged through numerous petitions to the President, and Kalam had taken substantial interest in referring them to the Election Commission (EC) under Article 103(2) of the Constitution.
| PREZ PRESSURE |
|1951: President Rajendra Prasad opposed the Nehru Government's Hindu Code Bill. When Nehru expressed surprise, Prasad threatened to refer the matter to the Supreme Court.|
1962: In the wake of the India-China war, President S. Radhakrishnan ensured that defence minister Krishna Menon was removed from the Cabinet despite Nehru's protests.
1987: Giani Zail Singh returned the Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill for reconsideration. Rajiv Gandhi eventually stopped calling on the President.
1998: K.R. Narayanan sent back the I.K. Gujral Government's proposal to impose President's rule in Uttar Pradesh.
Over the past few months, the poll panel had been inundated with petitions alleging that party bosses, Union ministers, chief ministers and ordinary MLAs of state Assemblies were guilty of an alternative source of earning despite being elected or nominated. Big names that figured in the petitions included the Congress's Sonia Gandhi, Pranab Mukherjee and Karan Singh, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, BJP leader V.K. Malhotra and chief ministers Arjun Munda, Raman Singh and Naveen Patnaik. The embarrassment led the leaders of the Congress, BJP, CPI(M) and the Samajwadi Party, among others, to agree to legislation that would define "office of profit" clearly. This was considered the only way out of the mess.
Bharadwaj amended the Prevention of Disqualification Act 1959 and the changed Bill was passed by Parliament in the last session. On May 25, Kalam received the Bill but after discussing it with constitutional experts refused his assent, insisting that a just, fair and reasonable approach be taken by the Government to ensure that the legislation was applicable to all states and Union territories.
The Government, sources say, did not anticipate the President's reaction since Sonia had resigned from, and had been re-elected to, her Lok Sabha seat, and had even quit the chairpersonship of the National Advisory Council (NAC). Sonia's "precedent", according to Congress leaders, was laudable. However, Kalam's poser to the Government on the "propriety of passing the legislation with retrospective effect", it seems, baffled the party and the Government. "The President's questions are valid because you can't handle this issue in a haphazard manner. It has long-term implications and can't be a mere formality," says H.S. Phoolka, senior advocate of the Supreme Court.
BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley claimed moral victory for the party after Kalam refused to put his signature on the Bill since their party had lobbied against its implementation with retrospective effect. Referring to the Government's proposal to exempt 46 posts, including the NAC, from the Bill's purview, Swaraj had said, "Today they have 46, tomorrow they will get 100." The BJP suspects that Article 102 of the Constitution was sought to be misused by the Government since it gives Parliament the right to decide what an office of profit is. Strangely, the office of chairperson of the Uttar Pradesh Film Development Council-the post that actor Jaya Bachchan held and which led to her expulsion from the Rajya Sabha on March 27 this year-is not among the 46 posts that have been exempted from the purview of the Bill.
Some of the UPA members are complaining for a different reason. "Neither the EC nor the Government asked us for explanations before putting up our names on the Commission's website," says CPI(M) Lok Sabha member Hannan Mullah. Along with Chatterjee and senior party colleague Nilotpal Basu, Mullah figures in the list of 43 MPs against whom complaints are pending with the poll panel. Although the EC is yet to initiate any action against the concerned MPs, the Trinamool Congress has demanded that the Lok Sabha Speaker and concerned Left MPs immediately resign.
This might just be the right opportunity for the EC to increase pressure on the already anxious MPs. Sources in the poll panel say that members of Parliament or state legislatures against whom complaints have been received by the President should not write off the chances of being quizzed by the panel. Chief Election Commissioner B.B. Tandon, who is due to retire on June 17, is said to have told his officers to gather information about the concerned MPs and MLAs.
The confrontation between the President and the Government over the content of the Bill has not affected the EC's position. "Why should it have anything to do with us?" asks a Commission official. However, the panel could play a larger role in settling the issue of disqualification as it did in the case of former Rajya Sabha member Jaya Bachchan. But it is also possible that after the exhaustive Assembly elections in five states, the EC might be less enthusiastic about by-elections soon.
| PICTURE SPEAK|
|QUIT PRO QUO: Sonia's resignation triggered the office-of-profit Bill |
Meanwhile, the CPI(M) is trying to help the Manmohan Singh administration by suggesting that an expert committee be set up to study the scope of the legislation. In other words, first get the Bill cleared and then pacify critics by promising an overview. While under Article 111 of the Constitution, the President cannot refuse his accent to the returned Bill if both Houses of Parliament pass it again without even a single change, experts say he could refer the matter to the Supreme Court. A similar situation had confronted the Nehru government in 1951 when the then President, Rajendra Prasad, had asked for the apex court's involvement in the Hindu Code Bill because he disagreed with Nehru on various aspects of the Bill. More recently, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had stopped calling on Zail Singh after he had famously returned the Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill. If the consternation is widespread this time, especially among the ruling party, it is only because of the general feeling that the office-of-profit law is seemingly nothing more than a harmless piece of legislation.