The Election Commission of India (ECI) has declined chief minister Hemant Soren’s request for making public the letter ostensibly recommending his disqualification as an assembly member for holding a mining licence, citing constitutional provisions against its disclosure. Officials aware of the matter said a process needed to be followed and ECI has no role to play after the letter was sent to Jharkhand governor Ramesh Bais.
Soren’s lawyer, Vaibhav Tomar, earlier wrote to the ECI saying the election watchdog’s proceedings were judicial in nature and therefore a copy of the letter should be shared to end the uncertainty over his client’s position as Bais was yet to act.
A person aware of the matter said the letter is privileged information for Bais to act upon. “It has been sent in a sealed envelope according to constitutional provisions and cannot be disclosed. There is a process that has to be followed and ECI now has no role in it,” said the person, requesting anonymity.
According to the Constitution’s Article 192, the matters related to such disqualifications shall be referred to the governor, whose decision shall be final after seeking the ECI opinion.
Soren’s office did not respond to HT’s request for comments.
The ECI on August 25 sent its opinion to Bais and triggered political uncertainty in Jharkhand.
On September 1, a delegation of the ruling Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)-led alliance met and urged Bais to “clear the air” over the ECI letter on Soren’s assembly membership. It is unclear why Bais is yet to act.
In a memorandum submitted to Bais on September 15, Soren accused the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of using the delay on part of Bais to create confusion among the masses about the future of his assembly membership and government.
Bais sought the poll watchdog’s advice after the BJP sought action against Soren for allegedly holding an “office of profit”, which in this case is the mining licence.
It was unclear whether ECI also recommended that Soren be barred from contesting elections for a specific time period. HT has not seen the contents of the letter.
Soren is not the first chief minister facing such a situation. He may be able to contest a by-election within six months and continue as the chief minister if he is only disqualified from his current position as a member of the assembly.
He can remain the chief minister if he wins the bypoll and his party renominates him as the floor leader. It will be difficult for him to continue if he is disqualified as a lawmaker and barred from contesting elections for a specific period of time.
In 2001, then Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa was convicted of corruption and barred from contesting elections. She returned as the chief minister after the Madras high court overturned her conviction and she fought a bypoll.
The crisis began in February when the BJP submitted a memorandum to Bais seeking disqualification alleging Soren misused his position to get the licence of a stone mine. Soren same month applied for cancellation of the lease granted on February 4.
The BJP argued Soren violated the office of profit guidelines, which seek to prevent conflict of interest in the role of parliamentarians and state lawmakers, and should be disqualified under Section 9(A) of the Representation of People’s Act.
Soren has argued holding a mining lease was out of the purview of the office of profit rules and that the lease was originally granted to him in 2008 when he was not the chief minister.