July 2: The official clearance to Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature for President was put off by a day after the Opposition raised an office-of-profit question, the David that felled Sonia Gandhi six years ago, by citing a post in the Calcutta-based Indian Statistical Institute (ISI).
Rival candidate P.A. Sangma’s counsel told the official scrutinising the nomination papers that Mukherjee’s candidature should be rejected as he was chairman of the ISI.
Rajya Sabha secretary-general Vivek K. Agnihotri, the returning officer for this election, adjourned the scrutiny, saying it was “inconclusive” and he would give an opportunity to the “other side” on Tuesday before ruling on the objection raised by lawyer and former BJP MP Satpal Jain on behalf of Sangma.
The government rejected the charge and pointed out that Mukherjee resigned from the ISI on June 20, eight days before he filed the nomination.
However, the Congress was initially numbed into silence as the ISI website continued to show Mukherjee as chairman till this evening. The panic of 2006, when Sonia stepped down as MP following an uproar over her assignment in the National Advisory Council, appeared to be still playing on the party’s nerves.
But the ISI was prompt in issuing a clarification.
“Yes, certainly, Mr Mukherjee did resign on June 20, this year,” ISI director Bimal Roy told The Telegraph this evening. “Our website is usually updated once a month or so. It was my mistake really, I should have had it updated immediately after his resignation.”
According to Roy, Mukherjee had been the chairman of the council since September 2004. “He was very regular. He always gave us time. I don’t remember when he missed a council meeting,” said Roy.
Sources in the institution said Mukherjee “never” received any money in the form of compensation or honorarium for his contribution.
The Congress is worried that some Opposition supporters may go to court and insist that the documents be perused to establish the date of resignation, which can cast a cloud on the presidential contest.
The Constitution, while defining qualifications for a presidential candidate under Article 58, states “a person shall not be eligible for election as President if he holds any office of profit under the Government of India or the government of any state or under any local or other authority subject to the control of any of the said governments”.
Parliament had passed legislation exempting certain offices in public interest and the ISI is one of them. But the exemption specifically mentions MPs and ministers, not presidential candidates.
So sure were Congress leaders of Mukherjee’s meticulousness in dealing with details that they were not prepared for the allegation. Mukherjee’s election agent and parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Bansal, accompanied by home minister P. Chidambaram, promised to get back after talking to the candidate.
Bansal rebutted the allegation after meeting Mukherjee, saying: “The charge was factually incorrect, legally ill-conceived and untenable.”