J. Venkatesan

Also decides, 2-1, to seek information on Order of Leopold from External Affairs Ministry

New Delhi: The Election Commission, by a majority of 2:1, has decided to issue notice to the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, seeking her response to an allegation that she had incurred disqualification as a Member of Parliament, under Article 102(1)(d) of the Constitution, for accepting the ‘Order of Leopold’ from the King of Belgium in November 2006.

According to authoritative sources, the Commission has also decided, by a majority of 2:1, to seek information from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) about the award ‘Grand Officer of the Order of Leopold’ received by Ms. Gandhi.

Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami and Election Commissioner Navin Chawla agreed on sending the notice to Ms. Gandhi for proceeding further in the matter, with Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi opposed to this step. On the other hand, Commissioners Chawla and Quraishi agreed on seeking further details from the MEA, with the CEC opposed to this.

Disqualification of an M. P. is attracted under Article 102 (1) (d) of the Constitution for being “under any acknowledgment of allegiance or adherence to a foreign state.”

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, as President, referred to the Commission a petition received from P. Rajan of Kochi alleging that by accepting the ‘Order of Leopold’ Ms. Gandhi had attracted the constitutionally prescribed disqualification.

The petitioner’s case was that on being granted the ‘title,’ “the grantee has become a Member of the Association of the Order of Leopold and since Article 1 of the Association has the provision that the Association ‘displays an eternal devotion to Belgium and the monarchy,’ Ms. Gandhi had attracted disqualification.”

Although the Commission’s legal department recommended issue of notice to Ms. Gandhi in September 2007, it was not sent in view of serious differences between the CEC and the two Commissioners. One Commissioner was of the view that the complaint should be dismissed and also suggested obtaining an updated list of foreign recipients of this award/titular recognition. Another Commissioner, agreeing with the latter suggestion, also wanted a copy of the citation given to Ms. Gandhi to be obtained from the MEA.

The CEC found that a prima facie case had been made out by the petitioner for issuing notice. In his view, even after perusing the letter received from the Embassy of Belgium that the ‘Order of Leopold’ was a decoration and not a title, there was no reference to the Association and its statutes in the note of the MEA or the papers informally obtained by one of the Commissioners. Further, the MEA did not have any locus standi in this case and hence he did not agree with the two Commissioners on seeking details from the Ministry.

Mr. Chawla’s stand was that an award from any foreign government would not attract the charge of allegiance to a foreign country. Since the recognition had been offered by the Belgium government, clarifications could be obtained from the MEA to ascertain the true facts. Further, a copy of the reference could be forwarded to Ms. Gandhi to elicit her comments before taking a view on the reference seeking disqualification.

Mr. Quraishi took the stand that since the term ‘allegiance and adherence to foreign state’ was not found in the statutes of the association of the ‘Order of Leopold’, though the word ‘devotion’ was used somewhere, it would be an abuse of process of law to force prematurely a respondent to face a proceeding when, taking the entirety of the allegation made by the petitioner and the material furnished by him, no tenable case of violation of Article 102 (1) (d) has been made out. Therefore he suggested that the Commission should first ask the petitioner to substantiate his allegation, at least prima facie, by producing relevant documents, including the citation; and simultaneously, the Commission should seek the relevant information from the MEA.

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