In a setback for the JMM-led Jharkhand regime, the Election Commission (EC) on Thursday recommended the disqualification of Chief Minister Hemant Soren as MLA under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, The Indian Express has learnt.
Sources said the Commission, in its opinion shared with Jharkhand Governor Ramesh Bais, found Soren guilty of misusing his position to allot a stone mining lease to himself last year. The Chief Minister also heads the state’s mining department.
The Governor, who had referred the matter to the EC after receiving a complaint from the Opposition BJP, is yet to officially communicate his order on the issue.
Soren was elected from Barhait and Dumka in the 2019 state elections. He later gave up the Dumka seat after which his brother Basant Soren got elected from the constituency in a bypoll.
The Letter of Intent for the mining lease in Ranchi’s Argora area was issued on June 16, 2021. On April 8 this year, Jharkhand Advocate General Rajiv Ranjan told the Jharkhand High Court that the state government had committed “a mistake” and the lease had been surrendered.
The EC sent its opinion to the Governor earlier on Thursday following which the JMM put up a brave front, saying that the outcome, even if adverse, would not affect the state government.
Speaking to The Indian Express, a senior JMM minister said the government will approach the court, if needed. “There is no danger to the government immediately. However, there will be some ramifications…party leaders and workers may get disillusioned as the Opposition (BJP) continues to attack us,” the minister said.
A senior JMM functionary told The Indian Express that Speaker Rabindra Nath Mahato could buy Soren “some time” to challenge the order. If a legal challenge fails, he said, Soren “will fight the by-election from the seat on which he won earlier”.
“If he wins from the same seat, it will be the public’s mandate in his favour. The leadership is considering all possible scenarios. Everything will depend on the wording of the EC’s recommendation. Many legal luminaries have told us that getting the lease does not attract disqualification. If the Chief Minister is disqualified, it will be interesting to read the EC’s interpretation,” said the functionary.
The EC had issued a notice to Soren in May this year, seeking his response to the complaint that the Chief Minister had, prima facie, violated Section 9A of the Representation of People’s Act, which prohibits elected representatives from entering into any contract with the government for “supply of goods” or “execution of any works undertaken” by it.
The JMM is confident that Hemant Soren will remain the Chief Minister. The party is preparing for a phased response: appeal the order in court and, if unsuccessful, get Soren to contest the bypoll from the vacant seat.
According to Section 9A, disqualification of an elected representative under this section will last as long as the contract is in force. Hence, if the Assembly Speaker declares Soren’s seat vacant, he can resign as Chief Minister and technically be sworn in again since he has already surrendered the mining lease — with the provision that he gets re-elected within six months.
An EC source told The Indian Express that the Commission recently concluded hearings in the reference received from Bais, and that its opinion “was dispatched by the morning flight”.
Later, Soren went into a huddle with his advisors and Advocate General Ranjan. Soren also hit out at the BJP, which had submitted a plea before the Governor seeking his disqualification — the petition had been forwarded by Bais to the EC.
“It apparently seems that BJP leaders, including a BJP MP and his puppet journalists, have themselves drafted the ECI report, which is otherwise a sealed cover report. This blatant misuse of Constitutional authorities and public agencies and its complete takeover by BJP HQ in Deendayal Upadhyay Marg in this shameful manner is unseen in Indian democracy,” the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) quoted Soren as saying in a statement.
Earlier, BJP MP Nishikant Dubey had retweeted excerpts of a report quoting him as saying: “All the journalists have told me that he (Jharkhand CM) has lost his membership. That had been recommended to the Governor by the EC. As a BJP worker, it’s a matter of joy because it’s the BJP that had complained to the Governor. It is the day to celebrate.”
The CMO’s statement said that the “Chief Minister is apprised of several media reports about the ECI sending a report to Governor, Jharkhand, apparently recommending his disqualification as an MLA”. It said, “No communication in this regard has been received by the CMO from either the ECI or the Governor.”
“You can buy Constitutional institutions, how will you buy public support,” Soren said later in a tweet, sharing a photograph of a felicitation by members of the Jharkhand State Police Association.
Expressing confidence that Soren will remain Chief Minister till the next state elections in 2024, JMM general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya said his party is “ready to accept any political challenge from the BJP”.
“We taught them a lesson in the 2019 assembly polls and four by-elections in Jharkhand. Let them do all the conspiracy they want to… Public support is with us as the Hemant Soren government has fulfilled all its promises. There are better health conditions, jobs have been given, and police personnel are happy,” Bhattacharya told reporters.
Asked about the party’s strategy if Soren is disqualified, Bhattacharya said: “Hemant Soren is our only alternative…. Our government is strong and fulfills all its commitments.”
Earlier, speaking to reporters at the Ranchi airport after returning from a visit to Delhi, Bais said, “I was in AIIMS Delhi for two days. I will be in a position to talk about any such decision when I reach Raj Bhavan.”
The BJP has also accused Soren of allocating a mining lease to his political advisor Pankaj Mishra and press advisor Abhishek Prasad. Mishra is in judicial custody after the Enforcement Directorate (ED) arrested him following raids conducted to unearth alleged illegal mining in the state.
In the 81-member Jharkhand Assembly, the JMM has 30 MLAs while UPA ally Congress has 18 members and RJD has one. The main opposition BJP has 26 MLAs in the House.