While Congressmen may try and give Rahul Gandhi credit for the withdrawal of the controversial ordinance on convicted lawmakers, it was the President’s timely intervention that saved the day for the Congress, says Anita Katyal.
While reams will be written and hours of airtime spent in the coming days to debate the real winner of the recent drama resulting in the withdrawal of the controversial ordinance on convicted legislators by the United Progressive Alliance government, there is no denying that the campaign for clean politics has been the inadvertent beneficiary of last week’s developments.
The demand for cleansing the political system has picked up speed over the years following growing disillusionment with the political class.
Reports about criminalisation of politics, corruption involving lawmakers and poor governance have all combined to mark politicians of all hues as villains for the ordinary citizen.
This was evident from the angry public protests witnessed during anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare’s campaign for a Lokpal Bill two years ago. The movement petered out but the distaste for the manner in which politics is practiced in India has not gone away. On the contrary, the yearning for clean politics has been further strengthened.
Political parties can ignore this simmering public angst at their own peril. Fears about growing public outrage prompted Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to make that now-famous dramatic intervention at a press conference last week where he publicly denounced the ordinance nullifying a Supreme Court order disqualifying convicted lawmakers.
The UPA government in general and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi in particular were particular were hugely embarrassed as the ordinance was cleared by the Union Cabinet after due deliberations by the party leadership. Nevertheless, the Union Cabinet was forced to withdraw the ordinance and the bill on which it was based not only because the Nehru-Gandhi scion had so decreed but also because it could not go against the public mood.
It is precisely for this reason that the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are locked in a battle to claim credit for having forced the government to backtrack on the ordinance. While the BJP leaders maintain they have been consistent in their opposition to the move to provide protection to convicted legislators, the Congress predictably has been quick to hail Rahul Gandhi’s angry outburst as the ultimate “game changer”.
In fact, Congress leaders have been at pains to point out that Rahul Gandhi was actually reflecting the view which had been spelt out in the report submitted to Sonia Gandhi by the six-member committee on electoral reforms. The committee, set up by the Congress president in January, had proposed the disqualification of convicted MPs. Party leaders are, however, unable to explain Rahul Gandhi’s silence on the concerned bill was being discussed in all-party meetings and when it was introduced in Parliament. Similarly, he was quiet when the Congress core group and the Union Cabinet cleared the ordinance.
If the Congress has a lot of explaining to do about its vice-president’s belated reaction to the ordinance, the BJP has not fared any better. All political parties, except the Biju Janata Dal, had endorsed the UPA government’s move to introduce a bill to undo the Supreme Court verdict on convicted MPs and MLAs at two all-party meetings convened during the monsoon session of Parliament.
Similarly, all political parties (except the BJD and the Trinamool Congress) were also in agreement on amending the Right to Information Act to keep political parties out of its ambit.
As the session got underway, it became increasingly clear that both these bills would not be received well by the people. Consequently, political parties developed cold feet and started distancing themselves from the government’s proposals although there were no protests when these legislations were tabled in Parliament.
The RTI amendment bill was referred to a parliamentary standing committee at the behest of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi who took note of the angry responses from social activists. It was precisely for this reason that the bill on convicted legislators was also referred to a parliamentary panel, a decision supported by the opposition. This move was primarily meant to stall for time and wait till the public and media attention was diverted by some other pressing issue.
Pushed on the back foot now, the government has hit back by pointing to the minutes of two all-party meetings where BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley supported the UPA proposal that convicted MPs be allowed to retain their membership till their appeal is pending in a higher court. Swaraj had even suggested that instead of disqualifying convicted MPs, they should not be allowed to draw their salaries or vote in a debate. The BJP leader has predictably accused the Congress of “spreading falsehood” while pointing out that the minutes of the meetings being cited by the UPA were not shared with her or her party.
Working on the assumption that all political parties are in agreement on this issue, the UPA government made the cardinal mistake of rushing through an ordinance without awaiting the report of the parliamentary panel scrutinising the bill on convicted lawmakers. Taking a cue from the public mood, the BJP sharpened its attack on the government of taking the ordinance route while Rahul Gandhi pitched in subsequently to declare the ordinance as “nonsense”.
Congress leaders insist that his intervention, however belated, had proved to be a face saver for the party. “The consequences would have been far worse if the ordinance had been promulgated,” remarked a senior Congress leader.
While the Congress and the BJP are busy slugging it out, President Pranab Mukherjee’s role in ensuring that the ordinance did not become a reality cannot be overlooked or minimised. The Congress and Rahul Gandhi are in a position to claim credit today only because they were alerted to the adverse political ramifications of the ordinance by the President.
Instead of signing on the dotted line, Mukherjee sought clarifications from UPA ministers about the compelling reasons for going ahead with the ordinance. As it happened, it was the President’s timely intervention which saved the day for the Congress.