In split verdict, SC dismisses Sangma plea against Pranab

By a split verdict, the Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld Pranab Mukherjee's election as President, dismissing a petition by former Lok Sabha speaker P A Sangma who had alleged that the senior Congress leader held offices of profit on the date of filing his nomination papers.

Chief Justice Altamas Kabir, who led the 3-to-2 verdict by a five-judge Constitution Bench, held that Sangma's petition did not warrant a full and regular hearing since he had failed to satisfy the court on questions of law and also on facts during the preliminary hearing.

"From the materials on record, it is clear the respondent (Mukherjee) was not holding any office of profit either under the government or otherwise at the time of filing his nomination papers for the Presidential election," held the majority ruling.

The judges who noted their disagreement were Justices J Chelameswar and Ranjan Gogoi. Justice Gogoi held that Sangma deserved a full hearing and hence an opportunity to substantiate his case. No conclusion could be reached at this stage that a regular hearing will be a "redundant exercise or an empty formality", he said.

Sangma had alleged that Mukherjee, on the date of filing his nomination, was chairman of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Kolkata, and leader of the House in the Lok Sabha.

Writing the judgment for Justices P Sathasivam and S S Nijjar also, the CJI noted that as far as the contention over the office of the leader of the House was concerned, it was "quite clear" that Mukherjee had resigned as member of the House before he filed his nomination papers.

The court also said the controversy over the date of resignation had been set at rest after Mukherjee's private secretary undertook that it was due to "inadvertence" that he had mentioned a wrong date for the Congress Working Committee meeting to bid farewell to Mukherjee.

On the question of the post of ISI chairman being an office of profit, the majority verdict held that a position must carry some pecuniary benefits or must be capable of yielding pecuniary benefits in order to be an office of profit. However, such benefits were not there in respect of the post of ISI chairman, it said.

Justice Kabir cited Constitutional provision and the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act while underlining that although the ISI chairman's post could come under the strict ambit of an "office of profit", a mere categorisation was not enough since it did not provide any profit and was purely honorary in nature.

"It may not be inappropriate at this stage to mention that this court has repeatedly cautioned that the election of a candidate who has won in an election should not be lightly interfered with unless circumstances so warrant," he added.

In his dissenting judgment, Justice Gogoi also expressed disagreement over the views regarding the ISI chairman's post not being an office of profit.

According to him, the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act had no application insofar as election to the office of the President was concerned. Hence, a disqualification incurred by a Presidential candidate for holding an office of profit could not be removed by the provisions of this Act, as per the judge.

Justice Gogoi said that if it was assumed that the ISI chairman's post was an office of profit and Mukherjee held it on or after the date of filing his nominations, consequences adverse to him, in so far as the result of the election was concerned, were likely to follow.

He added that since these facts would require to be proved by Sangma, "no conclusion that a regular hearing in the present case will be a redundant exercise or an empty formality can be reached" and hence the election petition must not be terminated at the stage of its preliminary hearing but deserved a regular hearing.

Justice J Chelameswar, who also differed with the majority judgment, said he would pronounce the reasons in a separate verdict shortly. "I regret my inability to agree with the conclusion recorded by the learned Chief Justice that the instant election petition does not deserve a regular hearing. I shall pronounce my reasons for such disagreement shortly."

Senior advocate Ram Jethmalani argued the matter for Sangma while Harish Salve appeared for Mukherjee. Attorney General G E Vahanvati assisted the court under relevant SC rules and supported Mukherjee's version by pointing out that the post of ISI chairman was purely a honorary post.

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