Above: The SC observed that there was hurry in disqualifying Congress legislator Bhagabhai Barad of Talala/Photo: facebook
While the Supreme Court gave relief to a Gujarat Congress MLA regarding his disqualification, it refused urgent hearing of a plea from Hardik Patel of the same party, bringing into question his ability to contest the polls
By RK Misra in Gandhinagar
In the space of 24 hours, two leaders from Gujarat who looked for succour from the Supreme Court were left with different expectations. In the first case, the Court on April 1 stayed the Election Commission’s decision notifying the Talala assembly constituency seat in Gujarat as vacant and declaring a bypoll there along with the Lok Sabha polls. There was hurry in the process of law at all levels in disqualifying Congress legislator Bhagabhai Barad of Talala.
In the second case, the apex court refused urgent hearing of a plea by Congress leader Hardik Patel to suspend his conviction in a 2015 rioting case and thereby put paid to his ambitions of contesting the Lok Sabha polls.
It all began in 1995 when an FIR was lodged against Barad which accused him of illegal mining of limestone worth Rs 2.83 crore in Sutrapada area. Almost 24 years later, on March 1, 2019, he was sentenced by a court under Section 379 of the IPC to two years and nine months imprisonment. He was disqualified as an MLA by the Gujarat assembly Speaker, Rajendra Trivedi, on March 5.
Barad challenged his conviction and the principal district judge of Veraval in Gir Somnath district, MM Babi, stayed it on March 9 and even allowed his plea seeking suspension of the sentence as well as bail during the pendency of the appeal.
Soon after, the leader of the Congress Opposition in the Vidhan Sabha, Paresh Dhanani, met the Speaker and presented the Court order suspending his conviction alongside a memorandum seeking his reinstatement.
Apparently in a tearing hurry to get the Congress MLA out of the way, the BJP government moved the High Court on March 11, challenging the stay. On March 15, a single-judge bench of Justice Sonia Gokani set aside the stay and asked the sessions court to once again apply its mind, noting that lower courts should stay convictions only in rare cases. However, the hearing in the sessions court could not take place as scheduled on March 25 as the judge went on leave until April 1.
Barad then approached a division bench of the High Court on March 11 but failed to get any relief. The bench ruled that conviction automatically leads to disqualification, so the seat stood vacated. Post this order, the byelection was to be held on April 23 along with the Lok Sabha elections to 26 seats in Gujarat. On March 28, Barad moved the Supreme Court, where a bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi along with Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna stayed the bypoll and issued a notice to the Election Commission.
The Court took exception to the unusual hurry by the poll body in notifying the election, without taking notice of the stay then in existence. “How can you declare the seat to be vacant on March 10 when his conviction was stayed on March 7?” the bench asked.
While the Vijay Rupani-led government in Gujarat showed great speed in the case of the Congress legislator, the same alacrity was not witnessed in the case of its own ministers.
In June 2013, Union Water Resources Minister Babubhai Bokhiria, who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment by a Porbandar court in a Rs 54-crore illegal limestone mining case along with others did not face any disqualification. His conviction was also stayed by the sessions court. But the state government did not challenge it.
After the complaint against Bokhiria in 2006, he had left the country and was declared a proclaimed offender. The Porbandar police arrested him in 2007. The High Court later released him on bail. He contested the Vidhan Sabha elections in December 2012, defeated Congress president Arjun Modhwadia and was made a cabinet minister in the Modi government. In November 2014, Bokhiria was acquitted in the case. At one point, he faced numerous criminal charges but the taint did not prevent him from rising in the ranks.
Then there is the 2008 case of the Rs 400-crore fisheries scam when Dilip Sanghani and Purshottam Solanki were ministers in the Modi cabinet in Gujarat. Solanki, then minister of state for fisheries, and currently state minister for animal husbandry and cow protection, had granted fishing contracts for 58 reservoirs to his favourites. Sanghani was then agriculture minister.
There were allegations of corruption by both of them and an aggrieved contractor, Maradia, knocked at the doors of the High Court, which scrapped the Rs 2.4-crore contract granted by the minister. A repeat tender fetched Rs 45 crore. Maradia claimed that the loss to the exchequer over 10 years was Rs 400 crore.
Maradia again approached the High Court, seeking prosecution of Solanki. The matter turned controversial in 2012 when Governor Kamla Beniwal granted sanction to prosecute Solanki.
However, the Modi government challenged her decision in the High Court but lost. The case continues to be in litigation. In December 2018, the High Court refused to quash lower court proceedings against the two and ordered them to appear before the Gandhinagar court in two weeks. Solanki, ailing with kidney complications, has not done so till date.
Solanki, incidentally, also figured in the Srikrishna Commission report on the 1993 Mumbai riots where he allegedly led the mobs. He is also a former TADA detainee. A warrant of arrest for non-appearance before a court is out for a sitting minister of the BJP government in Gujarat, yet not a fly stirs among the ruling elite crusading against corruption.
In the second case, the Supreme Court refused urgent hearing of a plea by Hardik Patel to suspend his conviction in a 2015 rioting case so that he could contest the Lok Sabha elections. A bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra and also comprising Justices MM Shantanagoudar and Navin Sinha said there was no urgency in hearing the matter as the High Court order was passed in August last year.
“The order was passed in August 2018. What is the urgency now?” the bench said while refusing to give urgent hearing on the petition.
Patel had moved the Court after his plea for stay was rejected by the Gujarat High Court last week. He was awarded a two-year jail term by a Visnagar court in July 2018 in connection with the ransacking of local MLA Rishikesh Patel’s office in July 2015.
It is obvious that there are different strokes for different people from Gujarat.