Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi on Friday said the government’s ordinance, which negates a Supreme Court’s order that ruled convicted lawmakers can’t continue in office, is “complete nonsense”. Therefore, the ordinance should be “torn up and thrown out”, he added. He also said the government took a wrong decision in approving the ordinance proposal.
This shocker from Gandhi came when he made a dramatic entry into an ongoing press conference at the Press Club of India here on Friday. The strong words from the No. 2 in the party took not just the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government but Congress’ own media and communications head Ajay Maken, too, by surprise. In fact, till a few minutes before Gandhi made the statement, Maken, had been defending the UPA government’s decision to move the ordinance.
In his brief 10-minute interjection, Gandhi said it was high time all political parties including Congress stopped making such compromises if they really wanted to fight corruption.
Gandhi, however, did not take any questions from journalists who asked if he wasn’t undermining Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He left as quickly as he had come in. Left with little maneuvering room, the Congress took a U-turn within minutes, with Maken stating: “Rahul Gandhi’s was the official position and Congress opposes the ordinance.”
It was meant to be a routine ‘meet the press’ event with Maken as the communication incharge of the party fielding questions on the ordinance. Before Gandhi’s intervention, Maken had painstakingly listed out the sequence of events leading to the decision to bring an ordinance. He said the formulations for the ordinance had been discussed at an all-party meeting on August 13. He repeated what Finance Minister P Chidambaram said on Thursday to defend the government position in the face of a belligerent Opposition. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had labelled the ordinance ‘unconstitutional’.
While Maken was addressing the press conference, he received a call on his cell phone and he immediately excused himself and stepped down from the dais, saying it was a “very important call” and he must take it.
This unexpected incident had media persons speculate about who the caller could be, for it is unusual for Maken to have interrupted the press conference to take a phone call. Maken returned to the dais within a minute to announce it was a “historic occasion”, as Rahul Gandhi himself was coming over to address the media.
Gandhi moves with Z-plus security cover. His arrival was swift and had photojournalists scrambling to cover him. As soon as he took centre stage, Press Club president Anand Sahay offered a formal welcome to Gandhi, recalling how his father, the late Rajiv Gandhi, had visited the Club and had a ‘memorable’ press interaction.
Within minutes, Gandhi’s interaction, too, turned out to be ‘memorable’, albeit in a dramatic way, as Gandhi threw a spanner in the works of his own government.
Gandhi said he had decided to walk in to make known his “personal opinion” about the ordinance and how Maken, whom he had called up, had given him the “official (party) line”.
He said: “In my opinion, the ordinance is complete nonsense”, adding, “It should be torn up and thrown out.”
Noticing the shocked expressions of the audience, he said: “I’ll repeat it for you. The ordinance is complete nonsense. It should be torn up and thrown out.”
Before anyone could quiz him on this, he went on: “Internally, the arguments being given within the Congress party is that it has to be done because of political considerations. That is the line what everybody will give you, the Congress will give you, the BJP will give you.”
He added: “There’s a time to stop this nonsense, adding, “If we want to fight corruption, these small compromises cannot be made. It’s time all political parties stopped making these compromises.”
As he got up, a reporter asked him about his reaction to what Gujarat chief minister and BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi’s take on the ordinance. Gandhi shot back, “It’s not my job to answer what others have to say. I’m interested in what our party and government does.”
Without taking any questions, he stormed out of the press conference, accompanied by Maken, with reporters chasing him.
It was a remarkable sight as the electronic media had started wrapping up their equipment, thinking the press conference was all over. However, Maken came back on the dais and resumed the interaction.
It was, then, left to Maken to take the volley of questions thrown at him. Notably, Maken turned diplomatic and responded to all queries with a one-liner: “Rahul Gandhi is our leader. What he had said is the party’s official stand.”
When reporters asked him why information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari was defending the UPA’s decision to go for an ordinance, Maken replied with a straight face: “They are voicing the government’s stand. Rahul Gandhi’s is the party’s stand.”
Maken chose not to reply to uncomfortable questions as to whether this amounted to an erosion of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet’s authority or that this was proof that the twin-power centre model was not really working.
Caught in an unenviable position, all that Maken could say in support of Gandhi’s stand was: “Rahul Gandhi has aired the views of the common man who does not want to see any convicted people in Parliament or in our Assemblies.”
Two years ago, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid had created a flutter when he said: “We have only seen cameos of his (Rahul Gandhi’s) thought and ideas.” On Friday, it was one such brief cameo, which took centre stage role.
What the ordinance is all about
On July 10, the Supreme Court of India held Section 8 (4) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951, unconstitutional. The court order said an MP or MLA must be immediately disqualified if convicted by a court in a criminal offence with a jail sentence of two years or more. Section 8 (4) of the RPA protects convicted legislators from disqualification if they appeal before a higher court within three months. This, the apex court said, was unconstitutional.
Holding that Parliament had exceeded its powers in providing such an immunity, the court ruled it had lacked legislative competence to enact this provision, since it was in direct conflict with Articles 101 and 102 of the Constitution. These stipulate the principles for those who want to contest elections, as well as those who have been elected. The court had ruled that no relaxation could be given to a sitting MP or MLA when an ordinary citizen was barred from contesting elections if he stood convicted on the date of polling.
According to the government, when this matter came up in an all-party meeting, the unanimous view – including the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party – was that in their political life, public persons do come in conflict with the law. Sometimes, they are even convicted on criminal charges. Their rivals can institute cases against them.
They must have as much right to be heard and to appeal against their conviction as anyone else. Armed with this, the government decided those elected MPs or MLAs must be given the chance to retain their seat (subject to truncated powers and privileges) till they appeal against their conviction. Accordingly an ordinance was drawn up and cleared by the cabinet. However, even as Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Law Minister Kapil Sibal and others were defending the ordinance, it appears the leadership of the BJP developed cold feet.
They deny having ever agreed to an ordinance. It says at the all-party meeting the party merely said the proposed legislation should go to the relevant standing committee of Parliament. Those from the government who were present at the meeting contest this.