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Will Dr Singh's govt see the light?

August 18, 2006 13:51 IST

I have heard of going with one's gut instinct. I have heard of the value of having a second look. But it has been left to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to demonstrate the gymnastic ability required for third thoughts...

I refer to the vexed question of the Office of Profit Bill. It was never going to have smooth sailing given its murky antecedents. Let me briefly remind everyone of its history.

The Congress thought it could give Jaya Bachchan, a Gandhi family friend turned Samajwadi Party MP, a bloody nose by challenging her membership of the Rajya Sabha on the grounds that she was chairing the Uttar Pradesh Film Development Council.

The engineer was hoist on his own petard with a vengeance when people realised that several other MPs, not the least Sonia Gandhi, could lose their own seats since they too held positions that might be construed by the Election Commission as offices of profit.

Sonia Gandhi seized the opportunity to try to launch her son. She made a drama of quitting her Lok Sabha seat, then standing for re-election with Rahul Gandhi managing the campaign.

This contrivance occupied a few months -- not a 'sacrifice' but a summer holiday! However, I suppose she wanted to 'prove' that Rahul Gandhi is a 'vote-catcher', and the best way to do that was in Rae Bareli. Whether his 'vote-catching' abilities will still exist come the Vidhan Sabha polls in Uttar Pradesh remains to be seen...

Be that as it may, all the theatrics of the 'sacrifice' could not disguise the fact that the trap set by the Congress still existed. Worse, it was threatening to engulf several others. More than one Communist MP was under danger of disqualification, perhaps even the Speaker himself.

Under this lash, the Manmohan Singh ministry decided to present an Office of Profit Bill that would remove the threat with retrospective effect.

It says something of the calibre of politicians today that the Office of Profit Bill was rushed through Parliament. Happily, President Kalam refused to sign on the dotted line when presented with so cynical and self-serving a piece of legislation. This was the time when Manmohan Singh & Co should have had second thoughts.

Instead, with supreme effrontery, the Bill was once again rushed through both Houses of Parliament without any change, and then sent back to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The Constitution does not give the President the right to keep sending back legislation that he considers imprudent or unethical. He can do so once, but he must sign it into law thereafter. There is, however, a Brahmaastra that he can use when pushed to the wall -- rather than sign, he can resign.

I understand that the President called the prime minister for a meeting earlier this week, on Janmashtami if I have heard it right. We may never know exactly what happened at this meeting since a conference between the head of state and the head of government is confined to the two principals.

What we do know is that poor Manmohan Singh -- his own reputation as the 'Mr Clean' of Indian politics at stake -- hurriedly invited all his colleagues to an emergency meeting.  And on August 17 it was announced that a Joint Parliamentary Committee would look once again into the Office of Profit Bill.

This is truly unprecedented. Please remember that the Manmohan Singh ministry shepherded the Office of Bill through Parliament not once but twice in a space of under six months. It did so the second time knowing that the President -- indeed the public at large -- disapproved of the Bill. Yet it forced both Houses of Parliament to pass the Bill a second time without changing as much as a comma.

That, one might argue, was disrespect to the high office of the presidency. Did President Kalam politely tell his 'Mr Clean' Prime Minister that he thought that it wasn't worth sticking on in the comforts of Rashtrapati Bhavan at the cost of his own self-respect? As I said, we may never know.

But the insult to the President has been compounded by the insult to Parliament. On what grounds, precisely, does the Manmohan Singh ministry want Parliament to reconsider a Bill that it has already passed twice? What are the startling new facts that make it necessary to create a Joint Parliamentary Committee, an option that the government could have used as soon as President Kalam sent back the Bill?

My Congress friends tell me off the record that their party was willing to take a second look, to redraft the Office of Profit Bill once the President's misgivings became public. But the party was forced to return the Bill sans changes -- retrospective effect and all -- because of pressure from the Left Front.

I haven't had any chance to talk to my acquaintances in the Communist camp but it doesn't really matter. Irrespective of whether it was the Congress or the CPI-M that was at fault, the damage has been done.

The Office of Profit Bill is one of three pieces of controversial legislation, each seemingly created to serve a small section rather than society at large. The other two are the amendments to the Right to Information Act and the Bill legitimising illegal constructions in Delhi.

The BJP is, of course, just as guilty as the Congress in pushing the last named through Parliament, but both the Left Front and the BJP have expressed their misgiving about the proposed changes to the Right to Information Act.

Will the Manmohan Singh ministry care to see the light in each of these instances? Or will they wait until they are embarrassed into doing the right thing by the President or the Supreme Court?

T V R Shenoy