The court ruling on AAP MLAs is a scathing indictment of the EC’s functioning
The Delhi High Court verdict setting aside the disqualification of 20 Aam Aadmi Party MLAs in Delhi is a searing indictment of the manner in which the Election Commission handled the complaint that they held offices of profit while serving as parliamentary secretaries. For a body vested with the crucial power to determine whether lawmakers have incurred disqualification in certain circumstances and advise the President or the Governor suitably, this is an embarrassing moment. The court has not reviewed its decision on merits. Rather, it has ruled that the EC violated the principles of natural justice while adjudicating a lawyer’s complaint against the legislators. It failed to offer an oral hearing on the merits of the complaint and chose to hide under the specious argument that notices had been issued to the MLAs to respond to documents that the EC had summoned from the Delhi government. After saying in its order of June 2017 that it would fix a date for the next hearing, the commission issued two notices seeking replies but fixed no date; instead, it proceeded to give its decision on January 19, 2018. Further, Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat, who had recused himself at an earlier point, rejoined the process without intimation to the legislators. And another vitiating factor was that Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, who had not heard the matter and assumed office only in September 2017, had signed the order. It is a basic feature of judicial or quasi-judicial processes that someone who does not hear a matter does not decide on it.
The high court order scrupulously adheres to the core principles of judicial review of decisions made by a duly empowered adjudicatory body. Courts do not normally plunge into the merits of such a decision, but examine whether there has been any violation of natural justice, whether sufficient opportunity has been given to the parties and whether the proceedings were vitiated by bias, arbitrariness or any extraneous consideration. That a pre-eminent constitutional body should be found wanting in ensuring natural justice while answering a reference from the President is a sad comment on its functioning. It ought to have treated the matter with abundant caution, given the ease with which political parties tend to question the EC’s impartiality. The EC has an opportunity to redeem its name by more carefully considering the same question that has now been remanded to it for fresh adjudication. It could appeal to the Supreme Court, but a better course would be to hold a fresh and fair hearing. The high court has acknowledged the EC’s “latitude and liberty” in matters of procedure, but cautioned that any procedure should be sound, fair and just. In proceedings that may result in unseating elected representatives, fairness of procedure is no less important than finding an answer to the question whether they have incurred disqualification.