Kochi: Wayanad, a hilly region in north Kerala, became a centre of national attention in 2019 with the Congress’ surprise decision to field its then president Rahul from there in the Lok Sabha elections. Four years since the elections, wherein Gandhi recorded a thumping win even as he lost from his family’s once-stronghold Amethi, all eyes are on Wayanad once again with the possibility of a bypoll looming large on the constituency.
The national election commission can now announce a bye-election to Wayanad anytime soon with Rahul’s disqualification as a member of parliament, caused by his conviction in a defamation case. The seat, considered a citadel of the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala, has fallen vacant, technically, from March 23, the day a Surat court convicted Rahul in the 2019 criminal defamation case. The Lok Sabha Secretariat on Friday disqualified Gandhi as MP from Wayanad with effect from the date of conviction, in a move that has invited strong dissent from political parties across the opposition spectrum.
Bypoll to a vacant seat has to be held within six months from the date of occurrence of the vacancy, according to the Representation of the People Act, 1951. The Surat court while convicting Rahul has given him a month’s time to challenge its order in a higher court. However, the EC need not consider that if it decides to go for a bypoll as early as possible. A recent episode from Lakshadweep could be a pointer towards a possible quick decision by the EC even though the poll panel had to withhold its decision to conduct a bypoll in the island constituency as judiciary came its way.
The EC had on January 18 announced a bypoll to Lakshadweep Lok Sabha constituency, just a week after Mohammed Faizal of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was disqualified as the MP following his conviction in an attempt to murder case. The bypoll was to be held on February 27, according to the EC announcement, along with some state polls. However, Faizal’s conviction and sentence were suspended by the Kerala High Court (also in charge of Lakshadweep) on January 25. Following this the EC had to withhold the scheduled bypoll.
It remains to see what could be the fate of Rahul’s appeal. If the upper court he moves suspends his conviction then his membership to the parliament would automatically be restored, avoiding the need of a bypoll just like what happened in the Lakshadweep episode. A Supreme Court lawyer Onmanorama spoke to said the upper court is likely to consider the appeal within two-three days of its filing provided the urgency of the matter. In such a scenario, the EC may wait for the decision on the appeal in a bid to avoid the Lakshadweep situation.
Row over disqualification
The conviction and resultant disqualification of Rahul has triggered a political storm with the Congress alleging the verdict to be ‘erroneous and unsustainable’. The party has also announced that it would challenge the disqualification legally and politically.
The move to disqualify Rahul through a circular issued by the Lok Sabha Secretariat has also raised questions on the legality and technicality of the procedures to be followed.
PDT Achary, former secretary-general, Lok Sabha, has questioned the way the disqualification has been effected. His argument is that the Lok Sabha secretary general doesn’t have the authority to disqualify a member. He said Under Article 103, the President of India has been given the task of declaring the person disqualified. He said the due procedure for disqualifying a member was not followed in the case. He told Onmanorama that the Lok Sabha secretariat has made the disqualification move because it is convinced that the judgement in the Lily Thomas v Union of India (2013) case allows them to do so.
The judgment in the 2013 case has provided that all the elected or non-elected MPs and MLAs would be disqualified with the immediate effect if they were convicted in a criminal case by a trial court.
Supreme Court lawyer M R Abhilash told Onmanorama that the Lily Thomas case has given enough grounds for the immediate disqualification of a convicted MP or MLA. “In the Lily Thomas case, the Supreme Court has invalidated the provision that allowed time for convicted representatives to gain appeal. The apex court has upheld that verdict in later judgements and affirmed it. So immediate disqualification is a ‘settled law’,” he said.