New Delhi: With Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren embroiled in a controversy over a mining lease, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pressing for his disqualification from the legislative assembly, the future of the incumbent coalition government — comprising the Soren-led Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) — seems shaky.
On Wednesday, Jharkhand Congress in-charge Avinash Pande tried to strike a confident tone, blaming the BJP for “trying to create an atmosphere of political instability” in the state. Responding to questions on the coalition, Pande added, “We have sufficient numbers and the government will certainly finish its term. All coalition partners are on the same boat.”
Pande’s comments came two days after the Election Commission of India (ECI) on 2 May, asked Soren to clarify his stand on a mining lease allegedly granted to himself — while holding charge of the department — in violation of Section 9A of The Representation of the People Act, 1951. The ECI had earlier, on 8 April, sought the relevant and ‘authenticated’ documents related to the lease from Chief Secretary Sukhdev Singh, which the Jharkhand government had sent.
According to a source in the government, Soren is yet to respond to the 2 May notice.
Section 9A of The Representation of the People Act, 1951, states that a person shall be disqualified (from membership of Parliament or a state legislature) “if, and for so long as, there is a contract entered into by him in the course of his trade or business with the appropriate government, for the supply of goods to, or for the execution of any works undertaken by, that government”.
In Soren’s case, he allegedly allocated a mining lease to himself which, if implemented, would have been used to set up a stone quarry in the area, according to senior government officials and an expert on the Constitution who ThePrint spoke to.
Trouble for the Jharkhand CM started in February, when former CM and senior BJP leader Raghubar Das accused Soren of allotting the mining lease for a stone quarry — spread over 0.88 acres in Ranchi’s Angara block — to a company held by himself in May last year, and getting it cleared by the Gram Sabha in June 2021. Soren’s company received an environmental clearance for the project in September.
Soren holds the two relevant portfolios — forest, environment and climate change, as well as mining and geology — himself.
A day after Das’ allegations, on 11 February, Soren surrendered the lease. In April, however, Das brought fresh allegations against the Jharkhand CM, claiming Soren had allotted 11 acres of land to his wife in Ranchi’s industrial cluster. Soren also holds the charge of the state’s industry department.
In a petition submitted to Jharkhand governor Ramesh Bais in February, the BJP sought his disqualification, based on the provisions of Section 9A of The Representation of the People Act. As clamours for the CM’s disqualification from the legislative assembly gathered strength, the governor sought the ECI’s legal opinion on the issue.
ThePrint looks at the political fallout of the controversy.
‘ECI, governor have legal rights to take action’
Discussing the provisions of Section 9A of The Representation of the People Act, senior Supreme Court advocate Ajit Sinha told ThePrint, “I am not aware of the facts of the case, and I only know it from what has been in the public domain. From that I can say, if the allegations are proved, then the ECI and the governor have legal rights to take action. The deciding authority is the ECI in such cases.”
A second senior official in the state government added that “even though four of five provisions (of the Constitution) for a disqualification do not apply in the case, Section 9A of The Representation of The People Act may be considered by the ECI. But the case is now between the ruling party and the ECI.”
Meanwhile, the Jharkhand High Court is hearing a PIL in this matter and issued notice to the chief minister. During a hearing early this month, Rajiv Ranjan, the advocate general, told the court that the state had committed a “mistake” and “surrendered” the lease. The case is currently sub judice.
While a third senior state official told ThePrint that no FIR or official complaint had yet been lodged against Soren, the ruling Jharkhand Mukti Morcha has started exploring legal options to safeguard the CM.
“The allegations brought by the BJP do not stand in the court of law. They are accusing the chief minister of violating section 9A of The Representation of the People Act, 1951, as he issued an order allotting a mine to his company. But it was an administrative error, and the chief minister corrected it when it was brought to his attention,” JMM general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya told ThePrint.
He added: “He surrendered the mine leasehold too. So where does the case stand? We have written a letter to the governor stating this two days back, and we want him to forward our letter to the ECI, as he did in the case of BJP.”
Claiming that the party was now waiting for an ECI order seeking its appearance and presentation in the case, Bhattacharya said, “We want to present our case before the commission. We are exploring legal options, but will not take the final call unless we see the ECI’s decision. This is nothing but vilification of opposition leaders.”
Article 191 of the Constitution mentions five provisions under which a member of a state legislative assembly may be disqualified, said an expert on the Constitution who is working with the state government, who did not wish to be identified.
“The provisions include holding any office of profit (in the government), for being of unsound mind, for being insolvent, for giving up the citizenship of India or applying for the citizenship of a foreign country and under any other statute made by Parliament. In this particular case, the only possibility for a disqualification stems from the mine lease allocation, which is a government property, to the chief minister’s company by the chief minister himself,” the expert explained.
He added, “This is tantamount to receiving benefits from the government office. The governor has powers to forward any complaint alleging (the holding of) an office of profit against any elected representative of the state assembly to the ECI seeking its legal opinion. The ECI is the final authority and the governor is bound by the law to accept its decision.”
A senior JMM leader claimed that the land for the mining lease was not a fresh allotment, but a “renewal”, and was declared to the ECI in the 2019 election affidavit.
According to the affidavit — available on the ECI website and a copy of which is with ThePrint — Soren owns immovable assets including agricultural and non-agricultural land and commercial and residential buildings worth Rs 6.03 crore. The non-agriculture land includes a “leasehold plot land at Angara Ranchi”, and the purchase date is mentioned as March 2008.
Denying the “reallotment” claim, however, a senior BJP leader alleged that the 0.88 acre land in question was a fresh lease and that ECI is probing it.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)