Ranchi: Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, who is embroiled in an “office-of-profit” controversy over issuing a mining licence to himself last year, is likely to continue as CM in the eventuality that the Election Commission of India (ECI) decides to disqualify him as MLA under Section 9 of The Representation of The People (RP) Act, 1951.
“There is no question of picking somebody else to be the CM in case he is disqualified. The Constitution says that a non-member (of the legislative assembly) can become a minister for six months, but will have to be elected within those six months to continue. This is what happened in West Bengal too,” Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya told ThePrint.
Soren will also challenge any decision by the ECI recommending his disqualification in the Jharkhand High Court, Bhattacharya further said.
“It is a democratically elected coalition. The coalition has the numbers. The majority mark in the Jharkhand assembly is 41. The JMM-Congress-RJD alliance has 48 members, which includes the CM. In such a scenario, any attempt to destabilise the government will be unlawful,” he added.
The matter relates to a petition filed by leaders of the opposition BJP, including former CM Raghubar Das and BJP legislature party leader Babulal Marandi, before Jharkhand Governor Ramesh Bais on 11 February, seeking Soren’s disqualification as MLA and removal as CM over the mining lease issue.
The governor had referred the matter to the ECI, which sent a notice to Soren, seeking a response to charges that he had a mining lease issued to himself for a stone chips quarry on government land while holding the mines portfolio, by 10 May.
The ECI had, in its notice, said that Soren’s action prima facie violates Section 9A of the RP Act, which deals with disqualification for government contracts.
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What the CM’s stand is likely to be
Soren’s legal team is now finalising his answer to the ECI notice. “The CM will submit his response well before the deadline given by the ECI. We are not likely to seek an extension of time,” Bhattacharya said.
The CM’s stand, he added, is likely to be similar to the reply he submitted in the high court last week in a writ petition filed against him by a BJP worker seeking his disqualification for issuing the mining lease to himself.
Soren, Bhattacharya said, will submit that Section 9A of the RP Act says a person shall be disqualified if and for so long as they have entered into a contract in the state and business with the appropriate government for supply of goods.
“Supreme Court judgments in the past have held that mining lease is not a business of supply of goods or for the execution of inverse undertaken by the government,” the JMM general secretary added.
‘If we go by past precedent, decision to disqualify will take time’
There is speculation that the ECI will take a decision in the case before 14 May, when Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra retires. However, constitutional experts are of the view that it is unlikely that the body will take the decision in a rush.
S.K. Mendiratta, former legal counsel to the ECI, told ThePrint that it is a quasi-judicial matter.
“In my opinion, once Soren’s legal team gives his response, the EC will have to hear both the respondent and petitioner before giving its decision. If we go by past precedent, the decision to disqualify will take time. Just because the CEC will retire on 14 May does not mean that he has to give a decision in the matter before that,” he told ThePrint.
“If the governor disqualifies Soren based on the EC’s decision, he can approach the high court challenging the decision. The high court has to dispose of the case within eight weeks,” added Mendiratta.
Uncertainty among allies
While Bhattacharya said that Soren will fight it out, there is a sense of uncertainty among his alliance partners, especially the Congress, on ECI’s impending decision.
“Ours is a pre-poll alliance, where we accepted Hemant Soren as the CM face of the alliance. So if he resigns or is disqualified, JMM will have to consult all alliance partners before selecting a new CM,” a senior Congress leader, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint.
“The CM has to be acceptable to all. Otherwise, chances are MLAs in the alliance might shift loyalty. There could be an exodus. The BJP is already attempting to break the alliance,” another Congress leader said.
But even amid the air of uncertainty over the ECI’s decision, the CM is going about his work as usual. In between flying to Hyderabad to attend to his ailing mother, Soren wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to give necessary directions so that Indian students who returned from war-hit Ukraine can complete their higher education in India.
On Saturday, he also attended the wedding reception of senior IAS officer L. Khiangte’s son in Ranchi. “There is no policy paralysis in the government. We are going ahead with our work,” a senior Jharkhand cadre IAS officer, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)
Also Read: How CM Hemant Soren’s ‘mining lease to himself’ has helped BJP demand his disqualification