Sujay Mehdudia

Congress leaders worried over possibility of Government being reduced to a minority

19 MLAs caught in a Catch-22 situation Leaders go into a huddle over the issueGovernment seeks Home Ministry's intervention

NEW DELHI: A sudden fear of the Government being reduced to a minority in the Assembly has gripped the Sheila Dikshit Government with the Election Commission rejecting the request of the 19 Congress MLAs seeking extension of time to file their reply in connection with the "office of profit" complaint and disqualification proceedings.

According to highly placed sources, the Government and its functionaries went into a huddle soon after the Election Commission's decision on the issue was known.

The 19 MLAs are caught in a Catch-22 situation. If they file a reply, they could face disqualification on the basis of that reply, as it would violate the "office of profit" definition. If they do not file a reply, they could face the possibility of having to face ex-parte proceedings and subsequent order. What has complicated the situation for the MLAs is the fact that the legislation on regularising all the posts in question has been pending with the Union Home Ministry for the past one month.

It is learnt that after President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam returned the Central legislation, the Home Ministry referred the legislation passed by the Delhi Assembly to the Law Department. The matter is still under consideration of the Law Department of the Union Ministry for Law and Justice.

Sources said that unlike other States where similar legislation has been approved by the Governor or returned for re-consideration, the situation in Delhi is somewhat different.

Here if the legislation is returned by the President -- as happened in 1996 during BJP rule -- the "message'' of the President would be binding on the Delhi Assembly. The Assembly does not have the power to send back the same legislation to the President and in this case the view of the President would prevail.

"It is a very agonising moment for us. We are unable to understand how to approach the whole issue. There is no collective consultation or advice as to what has to be done. All indications are hinting towards a mid-term `mini-poll' in case of disqualification and the time is not right for the Congress to go into elections,'' a senior party MLA remarked.

Sources said that if all the 19 MLAs are disqualified, the Sheila Dikshit Government could be reduced to a minority in the House of 70. The Congress will be left with only 28 MLAs with the BJP having 20, the NCP, Janata Dal (S) and Independent one each. All these developments have been the result of a complaint filed on March 28 by senior BJP leader and MLA Vijay Jolly who had petitioned the President.

The President in turn referred the complaint to the Election Commission that subsequently issued notices to 19 MLAs and Sajjan Kumar, MP.

It is learnt that the Delhi Government has got in touch with the Home Ministry seeking its intervention in the matter so that the legislation could be sent to the President for his assent. There is also another view that the legislation could face obstacles as the office of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Chief Minister is not clearly defined in the Constitution and for that a separate legislation has to be introduced to regularise that post. Also, there is fear that Section 14 of the legislation seeks unprecedented powers for exempting all statutory and non-statutory organisations or corporations from the definition of office of profit.