Can Narendra Modi be disqualified over degree row?

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Abhishek G Bhaya

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are leading a relentless attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the controversy surrounding his academic degrees. The allegations have shifted from Modi making false statement on oath about his qualifications in the electoral affidavit to now forging of documents with the emergence of ‘fake’ degrees in a section of the media.

Modi’s election affidavit in 2014 claimed he received a BA degree from Delhi University in 1978 and an MA degree from Gujarat University in 1983 but so far these claims haven’t been backed with authentic documents.

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I have come across many individuals including journalists, albeit mostly Modi supporters (colloquially referred to as bhakts), who consider AAP’s relentless campaign as a meaningless (and trivial) pursuit without much political import. This blog is an attempt to show them the light.

In any case, the blind confidence of the bhakts run contrary to the nervousness with which BJP and the party’s governments – both at the Centre and in Gujarat – have reacted to questions regarding Modi’s ‘alleged’ degrees.

Is Modi’s qualification a ‘state secret’?

It is rather intriguing how RTI requests on the subject of Modi’s qualification were repeatedly rejected over the past two years (by DU, GU, Gujarat Government and Centre) and how the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has protected the required information about the PM’s qualification as if they were ‘state secret’.

Also Read | Activists question more anomalies in ‘leaked’ PM Modi’s MA certificate by Gujarat University

What are they afraid of? Don’t people have the right to know how qualified their PM is? The resistance betrays their unease over the subject.

Kejriwal must have added to the anxiety of BJP and the PM when he deftly used a query by Central Information Commission (CIC) – about the AAP leader’s residential address on the electoral affidavit which is being challenged in a court case – to put the spotlight squarely on the secrecy surrounding Modi’s degree.

While Kejriwal submitted the document proving his change of address in the above case, in the same breath he went on to write a very scathing letter to the CIC stating that if the is willing to put up all his details in the public domain, why shouldn’t the same rule apply to PM Modi too?

Also Read | More contradictions emerge on PM Modi’s degree

Treating Kejriwal’s response as an RTI application, the CIC not only directed Delhi University and Gujarat University to search and provide information on Modi’s degrees to the Delhi CM but also directed the PMO to provide “specific number and year” of Modi’s degree and PG degree to Delhi University and Gujarat University “so that it will be easy for them to search and provide any documents relating to it”.

The PMO is reportedly vexed by the CIC’s orders. Don’t be surprised if you see heads roll within the commission.

The plot thickens

Soon, a ‘duplicate copy’ of Modi’s Masters degree from Gujarat University appeared magically in a section of the media. Something was amiss though. A university, that had resisted all efforts to make public Modi’s degrees for the past two years, took barely a few hours after the CIC directive to ‘leak’ the information selectively to the media.

Not only was the timing of the ‘leak’ a suspect, even the degree was found to have several anomalies, as reported by JantaKaReporter, leading to speculations that it was a fabricated document. JantaKaReporter also subsequently reported on how both the signatories on Modi’s degree have previously been booked on charges of fraud, corruption, cheating and forgery.

Earlier last month the Gujarat University had also allegedly leaked Modi’s enrollment document, which had the PM’s date of birth wrong. It appeared to be a fake as well.

Also Read | Former Delhi law minister Jitendra Tomar wants PM Modi’s arrest, wants him taken to DU to identify exam hall etc

Modi’s continued silence on the subject hasn’t helped either as it hints at tacit approval for the forgery.

‘A case of cheating’

Armed with the CIC order and following the publication of Modi’s ‘fake’ MA degree, the Delhi CM also wrote a letter to DU Vice Chancellor requesting him to make all information about Modi’s BA degree public.

“There’s a question whether he (Modi) did a BA degree from DU or not. It’s being said that he did not get a degree from DU. According to sources, DU records do not have details of PM Modi’s admission, mark sheet, degree or any other record. This is very serious issue as Gujarat University has said he has done an MA from there. If he did not do his BA how did he get admission for an MA course? This creates a doubt that the degree is fake,” Kejriwal wrote.

While DU so far hasn’t been able to provide any evidence of Narendra Damodardas Modi ever being a student at the university, AAP meanwhile tracked down a BA degree from DU of one Narendra Mahaveer Modi dating back to 1978 (the same year that PM Modi claimed completing his degree). AAP claims this is adequate proof that Modi has not only lied in his affidavit but also indulged in fraud and forgery.

“It emerges that he (Modi) has done neither a BA nor an MA. Both degrees are fake. Firstly, he lied to the entire country, secondly, he lied in an affidavit and thirdly, the degrees are forged. This is a case of cheating. If the PM is accused of cheating under (IPC section) 420, this is a serious matter,” Kejriwal said on Friday.

One couldn’t agree more with the AAP leader. He indeed has a valid point.

By all accounts, prima facie it appears that Modi not only made a false statement about his degree in the electoral affidavit but also, amid fierce attack by Kejriwal, he erred for the second time by tacitly allowing the ‘fake’ degrees circulate in the media. This indeed is a criminal offence. Adding to Modi’s woes is his own silence.

US examples

People/bhakts who are comparing this to the Obama-birther controversy would do well to remember that even Obama produced valid documents to prove that he was born in Hawaii and not in Indonesia as his opponents claimed.

He proved his bona fide too be eligible for the presidential elections and silenced his detractors.

And Canadian-born Ted Cruz, a presidential candidate in this year’s Republican primaries, had to get a verdict from Pennsylvania court to decide on a similar birther controversy. The court decided that Cruz is a ‘natural born citizen’ because he was a US citizen from the day he was born and therefore the place of birth could not be the determining factor.

Neither of the US leaders chose to remain silent when faced with controversies that challenged their eligibility to lead their nation. They either presented evidence in public or faced the court of law to wriggle out of the controversy.

Contrast that with our own PM’s response. It’s shocking why Modi hasn’t himself put out his degrees in public and ended the controversy once and for all? Most likely, because he doesn’t have them.

Key questions

Now, let’s take up the logical questions point-wise to understand the political ramifications of the controversy.

Can Modi be disqualified for not having the degrees he claimed he has in his election affidavit?

Technically no. The Indian Constitution hasn’t set any educational qualification requirement for the post of Prime Minister. Not having a degree does not disqualify a candidate in any way but if a candidate says he has degrees which he does not possess, then that would amount to having made a false declaration and misled voters.

Can Modi be booked for making a false statement in his electoral affidavit?

Yes. Giving false information on oath is listed as a criminal offence under Section 191 of the Indian Penal Code. While the Election Commission (to which Modi had submitted his affidavit) can take cognizance of the matter, currently it does not have any punitive power if the candidate has provided false information. The matter can be put for consideration vide a criminal suit in a court of law.

Can Modi be charged with forgery and cheating?

Yes. If the ‘fake’ degree and enrollment document from GU circulating in the media are indeed found to be forgeries, Modi could be booked under IPC Section 420 for the criminal offence of cheating and forgery, as Kejriwal has rightly pointed out. Section 420 covers offences relating to cheating and dishonesty, and leads to punishment of fines and/or jail terms up to seven years. Going by the trend set by Delhi Police action against AAP MLA Jitendra Tomar, it isn’t really out of place to demand for Modi’s arrest.

Can Modi be disqualified if he is convicted in a criminal case?

Yes. And this is the most critical part in the current controversy. Existing laws under Representation of People Act call for the disqualification of a legislator from the moment s/he is convicted for a criminal offence. On 10 July 2013, the Supreme Court of India, in a landmark judgement of the Lily Thomas vs Union of India case (along with Lok Prahari vs Union of India), ruled that any Member of Parliament (MP), Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) or Member of a Legislative Council (MLC) who is convicted of a crime and awarded a minimum of two year imprisonment, loses membership of the House with immediate effect.

Political ramifications

This effectively means that if AAP and other opposition parties show collective political will to drag the PM to court over the degree row, and subsequently if the judiciary shows enough promptness to come up with conviction verdict before 2019 elections,. there is a theoretical chance of Modi losing his parliamentary membership, and therefore also his Prime Ministership.

So far, only Kejriwal-led AAP has shown courage. Now we hear Congress has also taken up the issue. If the rest of the opposition unite and make the ‘degree issue’ a rallying cry for the resignation of the PM on ethical grounds, Modi is bound to feel the heat.
Whatever the outcome be, the credibility of PM Modi has taken a severe beating. He was already being dubbed as ‘Feku’, ‘Gappu’, ‘Jumlebaaz’ etc for not keeping his promises to his electorate. His tall claims on ‘Gujarat Model’, hollow electoral promises of bringing back black money from foreign banks and crediting RS 15 lakhs in every Indian’s bank account have anyway tarnished his record.

This fake degree episode is, by far, the most substantial evidence to prove that Modi suffers from a pathological compulsion of taking massive liberties with truth. He had earlier lied about his marital status in electoral affidavits. This is also a reflection on how lightly Modi takes the issue of political ethics.

Moreover, Modi will have to carry the rather unflattering tag of ‘Shree 420’ for forging his degrees and cheating his voters. This is certainly a new low for an Indian PM. The question is whether we as citizens are ready to continue with ‘Shree 420’ at helm or do we deserve better? Can we trust a PM to discharge his duties honestly, whose very election, it seems now, is based on the foundation of lies, dishonesty and false propaganda?

Like it or not, Kejriwal’s protracted pursuit of the subject has led Modi to commit blunder after blunder which may hurt him politically in the long run. And the Prime Minister may be well aware of the repercussions. That may partly explain his silence too. He may be hoping for the controversy to die on its own. After all, media has a short memory. But will it, this time?

(The author is a Gulf-based Indian journalist. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of JantaKaReporter)

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