Home > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy
All in a bid to save Sonia Gandhi
March 28, 2006
Let me begin by asking a few questions. Is it or is it not Parliament's business to discuss a Witness Protection Bill? Is it or is it not Parliament's business to discuss the Old Persons Bill? Is it or is it not Parliament's business to discuss the Communal Violence Bill?
These are three Bills that the United Progressive Alliance had vowed to bring to Parliament in the Budget Session. Sonia Gandhi herself had demanded the first of them in the uproar that followed the Jessica Lall verdict.
Alas for Jessica Lall, Priyadarshini Mattoo, and all those denied justice, the United Progressive Alliance now believes that there is nothing for Parliament to do but adjourn and go for a nice long summer break.
And all in a bid to save Sonia Gandhi the embarrassment of explaining to the Election Commission why she should not lose her Lok Sabha seat under the Offices of Profit Act; now that Parliament is not in session, the road is free to an ordinance!
The stupidity of the Congress decision and the haste in which it was taken left even its allies groping for a response. In a throwback to the Emergency, the United Progressive Alliance is planning an ordinance with retrospective effect. (In 1975 Indira Gandhi got her MPs to pass a law placing elections of the President and the prime minister above judicial scrutiny; this came after the Allahabad high court nullified her election.)
Sonia Gandhi resigns: The Complete Coverage
Sonia Gandhi could have been saved the blushes had her dirty tricks department not been so hyperactive. Some Congress worker filed a suit against Jaya Bachchan, to push that lady out of the Rajya Sabha. That has now boomeranged on Sonia Gandhi and certain others of her acolytes. Now, the Congress wants to legitimise laws that can take effect retrospectively. Do they realise how this can affect them?
Let us say that some non-Congress government decides to amend the existing laws on citizenship. The new law will state that citizenship can be granted only to persons born in Indian territory, and both of whose parents are themselves Indian citizens. That will of course knock out Sonia Gandhi. But it will also lead to Rahul Gandhi being disqualified since his mother was not an Indian. (That is true enough anyway, Rahul Gandhi was about 10 years old before his mother surrendered her Italian passport.) Will the Congress have any moral authority to oppose such an Act?
But there are three issues here. The first, of course, is the assault on democracy exhibited in the manner in which Parliament was adjourned to save Sonia Gandhi's skin. The second is the dubious nature of retrospective legislation. But the third -- and this seems to be something that everyone is ignoring -- what is an 'office of profit' and, by extension, what parliamentary principles and privileges are involved? Bear with me if I delve into the history.
It all starts with the 'Mother of Parliaments', England. While the House of Commons may be the most experienced and ancient legislative body of its type, it has not always had the most honourable history. In the great constitutional battles between the monarchs and the legislature, English kings and queens would bribe MPs by offering some sinecure. These were straightforward deals. 'Vote as I say, I'll make you Collector of Customs in Bristol!' After a few centuries of this nonsense, honest MPs finally made it illegal to hold any 'office of profit under the Crown.'
Sonia quitting: Much ado about nothing(As an aside, it wasn't just the monarchs who used this method of open bribery. Private firms followed the same practice. It might interest readers to know that one of the most notorious practitioners was the East India Company. Its interventions were so blatant that an angry William Pitt got Parliament to pass the India Act which brought the company under the crown.)
This history of 'patronage' -- a polite name for 'bribery' -- was known to the men and women who drafted the Constitution of India. That is why they inserted Article 102 which specifically bars legislators from holding offices of profit. But it was only the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act of 1959 that defined just what were offices of profit -- ministership and chairing specific committees being outside the gambit of Article 102. The Uttar Pradesh Film Development Corporation was not on the list -- which led to Jaya Bachchan losing her Rajya Sabha seat. But nor is the National Advisory Council -- and that could put Sonia Gandhi in the hot seat.
What is an office of profit?(Frankly, I am not sure if the National Advisory Council is an 'office of profit' in any event. But the Congress has made it one in the popular mind thanks to its panic. If you ask me, the best thing that Sonia Gandhi could do under the circumstances is to take the high moral ground and resign. I am absolutely certain that she will be re-elected from Rae Bareli by a landslide.)
But let us not restrict the debate to Sonia Gandhi. The correct response is to lay down binding criteria defining the concept of 'office of profit'. Otherwise you could end up with absurdities such as one I recall from 1990. V P Singh, then prime minister, made Ramakrishna Hegde the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. The order was signed by the Cabinet Secretary.
Subramanian Swamy appealed to the Election Commission, and the Chief Election Commissioner upheld him. Ironically, both orders were issued by the same man, first in his avatar as Cabinet Secretary and later in his post-retirement avatar as Chief Election Commissioner -- T N Seshan.
Sonia's decision a welcome trend
Parliament amended the law in 1993, stipulating that a seat in the Planning Commission at any rate was not an office of profit. But are you going to have a situation where the Disqualification Act is going to be amended in every single session? Given the new offices being created every second day by politicians, what other option is there?
I understand that no less than 44 MPs may come under the axe if the stringent conditions used to unseat Jaya Bachchan are applied to them.
But it all depends on the criteria used to define that vague phrase 'office of profit'. At the moment, it is up to the Election Commission to decide on a case by case basis, which is an unhealthy situation. Isn't it a breach of parliamentary privilege if someone other than Parliament itself disqualifies MPs? That was the position taken by the Speaker -- supported by all parties -- when he refused to be present in court after some MPs were expelled for taking money to ask questions.
If Parliament cannot accept the authority of the judiciary in disqualifying MPs, what sense does it make to appear before the Election Commission?
As it happens, certain criteria do exist. They were laid down by the Supreme Court itself in the Shibu Soren case. But I cannot recall Parliament debating the issue. And now the Congress is trying to simply bury the issue through an ordinance. In the process, it has mocked parliamentary democracy and endangered its own ministry. Tell me, dear Congressmen, was it really worth all this just to score a debating point off Mulayam Singh Yadav and Jaya Bachchan?