In a major relief to the Aam Aadmi Party, the Delhi high court on Friday restored the membership of 20 disqualified MLAs of Delhi's ruling party, quashing the Election Commission recommendation in the office-of-profit case as "vitiated" and in violation of natural justice.
The court while setting aside the recommendation and the consequent Presidential order at the same time directed the poll panel to hear the matter afresh, observing no oral hearing was given to the MLAs before disqualifying them as legislators of the Delhi assembly.
The disqualification had reduced AAP's strength in the 70-member Delhi assembly from 66 to 46 but it did not pose a threat to the government as it continued to enjoy a majority.
A jubilant Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal hailed the reinstatement of the MLAs, saying it was a "victory of truth" even as his party alleged that the EC's recommendation to disqualify 20 of its MLAs was a serious attempt to dislodge an elected government and demanded that the election commissioners either "resign" or "apologise" .
"It is a victory of truth. The elected representatives were wrongfully disqualified. The high court has given justice to the people of Delhi. It is their victory. Congratulations to the people of Delhi," Kejriwal tweeted minutes after the HC order.
Later, the 20 MLAs met Chief Minister and party chief Arvind Kejriwal at his residence in New Delhi.
Hours after the high court order, Delhi assembly Speaker Ram Niwas Goel allowed the disqualified MLAs to enter the House and take part in the ongoing budget session, following which 10 AAP MLAs attended the session amid chants of 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai' by fellow legislators.
The EC had on January 19 recommended the disqualification of 20 AAP MLAs -- Alka Lamba, Adarsh Shastri, Sanjeev Jha, Rajesh Gupta, Kailash Gahlot, Vijendra Garg, Praveen Kumar, Sharad Kumar, Madan Lal, Shiv Charan Goyal, Sarita Singh, Naresh Yadav, Rajesh Rishi, Anil Kumar, Som Dutt, Avtar Singh, Sukhvir Singh Dala, Manoj Kumar, Nitin Tyagi and Jarnail Singh. President Ram Nath Kovind had accepted the EC's opinion the next day.
Remanding the MLAs' plea for being reinstated back to the EC, a bench of justices Sanjiv Khanna and Chander Shekhar, said, "Opinion of Election Commission of India (given to the President of India) dated January 19, 2018, is vitiated and bad in law for failure to comply with principles of natural justice."
The bench, in its 79-page order said that the opinion (of EC) is quashed for "violation of principle of natural justice namely failure to give oral hearing and opportunity to address arguments on merits of the issue".
"The order of remand is passed to the Election Commission of India to hear arguments and thereafter decide all the important and seminal issues, like what is meant by expression office-of-profit held under the government...," the court said
It asked the EC to "re-examine the factual matrix to decide whether the petitioners (AAP MLAs) had incurred disqualification on appointment as parliamentary secretaries, without being influenced by the earlier order or observations on the said aspect in this order.
The judgement was read out by justice Sanjiv Khanna in a jam-packed courtroom, after which the jubilant AAP MLAs, who were present there, congratulated each other.
The MLAs, who were appointed parliamentary secretaries, had challenged their disqualification for holding office-of-profit.
Saurabh Bharadwaj, the chief spokesperson of the party's Delhi unit, targeted the former election commissioner A K Jyoti and alleged that his decision to disqualify the AAP MLAs was to “please the Centre”.
Party leader Ashutosh alleged that the EC's decision was an attempt to hijack the mandate of the people.
“If the post of constitutional authority is occupied by pygmies then democracy won't be safe. The EC's decision was a serious attempt to dislodge the duly elected AAP government," he alleged.
“Mr A K Jyoti and his other two colleagues should introspect, should they not apologies and resign,” Ashutosh tweeted.
Terming the verdict a "victory of democracy", Chandni Chowk MLA Alka Lamba said, "We are ready for all the challenges and are not afraid of difficulties. But the conspiracies to topple a stable government should stop now."
"Be it the Election Commission or those sitting at the central governemnt, this (order) is a message to them. This is the victory of democracy and people from our constituencies," she said.
AAP legislator Somnath Bharti said that the order has brought "happiness".
"It is a moment of happiness for us. There are still institutions in the country where you can get justice," he said.
Reacting to the high court order, Congress's Delhi unit president Ajay Maken tweeted, "We will fight it out in the Election Commission again as these 20 MLAs have enjoyed perks. HC has not disputed or denied this. The HC has just asked ECI to look at it again in the light of natural justice!"
During the arguments, the MLAs had requested the court to remand their case back to the poll panel with a direction to hear the matter afresh. They had approached the high court challenging their disqualification after President Kovind gave his assent to the EC's recommendation.
Backing its recommendation to the President for AAP MLAs' disqualification, the poll panel had submitted that the legislators cannot claim that they were not holding office-of-profit. It had also claimed that their pleas were not maintainable and were liable to be dismissed.
The MLAs are accused of holding offices of profit, as they were appointed parliamentary secretaries to ministers in the Delhi government in March 2015.
This was soon after they were elected to the Delhi assembly.
In September 2016, the Delhi high court had ruled against their appointment as parliamentary secretaries, after hearing their pleas on a daily basis since February 7.
The high court had on January 24 refused to stay the Centre's notification disqualifying them, but had restrained the poll panel from taking any "precipitate measures" such as announcing dates for by polls to fill the vacancies.
IMAGE: The 20 AAP MLAs meet Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal at his residence after the Delhi high court provided them a breather. Photograph: Kind courtesy @AamAadmiParty/Twitter