New Delhi: In a major setback to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), President Ram Nath Kovind has disqualified 20 of its MLAs in Delhi for holding offices of profit, a decision the party said showed constitutional authorities were behaving like "handmaidens of the central government".
Kovind gave his assent on Sunday to the recommendation by the Election Commission (EC).
The AAP had approached the Delhi High Court seeking a stay on EC's recommendation and the court has listed the case for a hearing on Monday.
While, the BJP welcomed the President's decision and demanded Kejriwal's resignation on moral grounds, the Congress alleged that there was a deal between the BJP and the AAP due to which the EC delayed the disqualification recommendation by a month.
Delhi Chief Minister and AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal tweeted, "There was some logic when God gave us 67 seats. The Almighty stood behind us in our every step. Otherwise we would have been nothing... Just don't stray away from the path of truth."
He told a gathering in Najafgarh, "They are trying to harass us by all means... They got CBI raid done at my office, but after 24-hour search they only found my four mufflers. Our MLAs were arrested. The L-G had called 400 files of our government (pertaining to decisions taken in two years), but when they did not find anything against us... they today disqualified our 20 MLAs."
Interestingly, BJP leaders Yashwant Sinha and Shatrughan Sinha backed the AAP with the former saying the decision depicts "tughluqshahi" of the worst order.
"President's order disqualifying the 20 AAP MLAs is complete miscarriage of natural justice. No hearing, no waiting for High Court's order. It is Tughluqshahi of the worst order," Yashwant Sinha tweeted.
Shatrughan Sinha said the "politics of vendetta" against the AAP would not last long.
AAP leader Ashutosh said the president's order is "unconstitutional" and "dangerous for democracy."
Saurab Bharadwaj, chief spokesperson of the party's Delhi unit alleged the chief election commissioner and the election commissioners are expected to behave in an independent and impartial manner and not as "political stooges of their masters who appoint them".
"The Election Commission is a constitutional institution of continuity and not a retired members club of a group of political appointees," he said.
"A first reading of the Narendra Modi government appointed Election Commission's biased opinion and subsequent notification issued by the BJP's central government to hastily disqualify 20 elected Delhi MLAs shows the constitutional authorities today are behaving like handmaidens of the central government," he alleged.
The EC had on Friday recommended to President Kovind that the 20 MLAs were liable for disqualification for holding offices of profit between March 13, 2015, and September 8, 2016.
A government notification on Sunday said the President has disqualified 20 AAP MLAs for holding office of profit.
Citing a poll panel order, Bharadwaj said in June 2017, the then Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi and Election Commissioner AK Joti had said the commission will intimate the next date of hearing to all the parties concerned in the present proceedings in due course.
However, the date of next hearing was not conveyed and the poll panel arrived at the decision before hearing them out, he claimed.
"AAP has complete faith in the judiciary and will challenge this biased, illegal and illogical order of the Modi government in courts of law," Bharadwaj said.
AAP MLAs were appointed parliamentary secretaries and this was described by petitioner Prashant Patel as them holding offices of profit.
Parliamentary Secretaries assist ministers with their work. AAP insisted that despite holding the office these MLAs did not take any salaries or perks.
The poll panel had said that it is basing its opinion on judicial pronouncements of the past, the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act and the Constitution.
The 20 MLAs disqualified include, Adarsh Shastri (Dwarka), Alka Lamba (Chandni Chowk), Anil Bajpai (Gandhi Nagar), Avtar Singh (Kalkaji), Kailash Gahlot (Najafgarh) -- who is also a minister -- Madan Lal (Kasturba Nagar), Manoj Kumar (Kondli), Naresh Yadav (Mehrauli), Nitin Tyagi (Laxmi Nagar), Praveen Kumar (Jangpura).
Others are: Rajesh Gupta (Wazirpur), Rajesh Rishi (Janakpuri), Sanjeev Jha (Burari), Sarita Singh (Rohtas Nagar), Som Dutt (Sadar Bazar), Sharad Kumar (Narela), Shiv Charan Goel (Moti Nagar), Sukhbir Singh (Mundka), Vijendar Garg (Rajinder Nagar) and Jarnail Singh (Tilak Nagar).
If AAP fails to get reprieve from the courts, Delhi will have by-polls for the 20 seats. The only technical aspect was that now the Delhi Assembly Speaker will have to notify the 20 vacancies for the EC to announce the by-polls.
Once the vacancies are announced by the Assembly, the AAP's strength would go down to 46 from 66 in the 70-member House. However, it will continue to have a majority to run the state.
Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari said that the President's nod to the poll panel's recommendation to disqualify 20 AAP MLAs has "protected" India's democratic values.
The Leader of Opposition in Delhi Assembly, BJP's Vijender Gupta said, "Kejriwal should take moral responsibility for disqualification of his MLAs."
Rubbishing the AAP's claim that the disqualified MLAs were not given a hearing by the EC to present their case, Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken alleged, "The delay was deliberate and due to a deal between the BJP and the AAP, the EC knowingly did so."
"Kejriwal has lost the moral right to rule and he should step down," he said.
Alka Lamba, who is among the 20 AAP MLAs disqualified, said the decision was "painful" and the president should have heard them out before arriving at any conclusion.
The petition was made to disqualify 21 MLAs, but one had resigned a few months back.