The last stand

The president’s decision to send back the Office of Profit Bill propelled a flurry of political activity across the nation

By Vjay Sanghvi

President APJ Abdul Kalam had his way over the need for a comprehensive legislation for the Office of Profit and forced the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to revise its stand and appoint a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to look into the matter. The proposal was put before the surprised Lok Sabha within 48 hours of the meeting between the president and the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, after the President’s reception hosted on the lawns of the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Independence Day. The meeting was apparently sought by the prime minister because the President had not assented to the legislation that was sent to him two weeks before.

 

The President sat on the Bill that Parliament had returned to him without changes suggested by him when he had returned the Bill, without his assent, on the ground of the need for a comprehensive law to govern the concept of Office of Profit for the federal units, in addition to the Centre. However, the UPA government decided that there was no need for changes that the President envisaged and the Bill was again sent back to the President for his assent. It was presumed that the President was bound to give his assent as Parliament had a second look at the Bill after it was returned to Parliament under the provisions of the Constitution. However, the managers in the UPA had overlooked that no time-frame was set up for the President to sign his assent on the Bill.

 

When no word came from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, there was virtual panic among the UPA partners because of the danger of disqualification of over 40 members, including 11 from the Left parties, as the Election Commission was scheduled to complete its proceedings in complaints that were received from the Rashtrapati Bhavan as well as from Governors of some states and give its advice to the President on August 24, 2006. In absence of the new law that was to exempt these members holding Offices of Profit with retrospective effect, the Election Commission would have been forced to recommend disqualification in most cases. Such an action would have jeopardised the Congress-led UPA government.

 

The President made it clear on Independence Day that he would not budge from his stand. After hurried consultations, the Prime Minister ensured that the necessary proposal for the Joint Parliamentary Committee was put forward to the Lok Sabha. The alarm was reflected in the fact that Parliament was presented the proposal for the Joint Parliamentary Committee without consultations with the Opposition. Even names of 15 members, 10 from the Lok Sabha and five from the Rajya Sabha, were not indicated. Only terms of reference for the JPC were outlined. The protest by some Bharatiya Janata Party members over such a sudden move was brushed aside and the proposal was adopted in the Lok Sabha. Only after the President assented to the Bill did the law come into force to save all those members whose heads were on the chopping board with the Election Commission.

 

It was apparent that the politicians on both sides had misread the intent of the President when they decided to send back the enactment without incorporating the changes that he had desired. His objections had stemmed from a flurry of activity in different state assemblies that were on a spree of enactments to save their members from disqualification as they were availing of perks of Offices of Profit that they would have enjoyed if they could have been accommodated in the State’s Council of Ministers.

 

Now Parliamentarians would examine the expression of Office of Profit in Article 102 of Constitution and the underlying principles therein and would suggest a comprehensive definition of Office of Profit and suggest criteria that are just, fair and reasonable so that they could be applied to all states and Union Territories. They would also examine whether laws prevailing in the United Kingdom relating to disqualification of Members of Parliament for holding Office of Profit could be adopted in India.