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Office of Profit: Opportunism Exposed

Opportunism Exposed The self-serving manner in which the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has dealt with the office of profit issue has returned to trouble the ruling coalition. President Abdul Kalam


Opportunism Exposed

he self-serving manner in which the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has dealt with the office of profit issue has returned to trouble the ruling coalition. President Abdul Kalam’s decision to send back the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Amendment Bill 2006 for reconsideration of the government is an acute embarrassment, whatever the spin doctors for the UPA may say. The UPA may yet decide to brazen it out by returning the bill to president Kalam without any modifications and the president will be bound by the Constitution to give his assent to this controversial legislation. However, the UPA will then have suffered a further loss of face and be stripped of what little moral authority it still has.

The entire episode has shown political parties of all hues in a poor light. The parties have demonstrated that the only issue that concerns them is that their representatives in Parliament should be able to retain their offices and avoid disqualification by the Election Commission. This is true of the Congress, the Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party, though the latter has been more interested in taking advantage of the UPA’s discomfort than in dealing with the fundamental issue.

Admittedly, the ambiguity in the Constitution and the very broad principles laid down by the courts in previous cases make the office of profit issue a difficult one to settle. However, as argued in these columns (May 6, 2006), the pandora’s box opened by the Jaya Bachchan disqualification provided an opportunity for the political parties and members of Parliament to discuss the issue threadbare and decide on clear principles of exemption, which would not create a conflict of interest with the main responsibilities of the elected representatives. Yet, this is not what Parliament did when it reconvened last month to discuss legislation that would end the ambiguity in law and practice. As it turned out, the UPA government and the elected representatives from all parties seemed only keen on protecting the more than 50 MPs against whom complaints had been registered with the Election Commission and on scoring points against each other. The sham of a legislation that was approved last month did little more than expand the list of positions whose occupants would enjoy exemption from disqualification under the 1959 law. The 50 and more positions that were added to the “exempted” list were almost entirely occupied by serving MPs. That the legislation was to apply with retrospective effect made it all the more obvious that the entire exercise was meant mainly to protect many current MPs. There was no attempt whatsoever to draw up clear, honest and definite principles on what position would qualify for exemption and what would qualify as an office of profit.

It is these fundamental failings in the legislation that president Kalam has drawn attention to while returning the bill for reconsideration. How can the blanket application of exemptions with retrospective effect be justified? And should there

Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006

not be uniform criteria such that an office on the exempted list in one state also enjoys the same benefit in another? (This was wrongly and once again self-servingly interpreted by members of the UPA government as the president asking the centre to legislate for the states as well.)

The Constitution has no room for an “activist” president but it is wrong to interpret president Kalam’s decision as intervention in executive and legislative affairs. The provision under Article 111 of the Constitution, which gives the president the power to return a non-money bill to the cabinet just once for reconsideration and also enjoins the head of state to give his assent the second time round, was clearly meant to provide checks and balances. Defects in legislation can be pointed out to the union cabinet, but the president does not have the authority to reject legislation that Parliament has enacted.

In the past, presidents have fortunately exercised their powers in sparing fashion but also without much consistency. President Kalam himself had few doubts in 2004 in readily signing the ordinance dissolving the Bihar legislative assembly that was sent to him late at night when he was in Moscow, a decision that subsequently attracted an unfavourable ruling from the Supreme Court. Whatever the inconsistencies in the presidential action, there can be no faulting the decision to return the 2006 amendment to the 1959 Act. The initial reactions from the UPA and its supporters have been less than positive; how they finally respond will be yet another test for the ruling coalition. m

Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006

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