How the Congress party was narrowly saved by an old warrior and a newbie

Since Rahul Gandhi’s unprecedented and explosive remark publicly trashing the ordinance introduced by the UPA government led by his own party, the Indian National Congress, and awaiting the Presidential assent, a lot of discussion and analysis have occupied the media and the political pundits. The allies of the Congress have been embarrassed and dismayed. In the case of Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav of RJD the direct fall out could not have been worse. But for once in these four years of its murky and beleaguered rule, Congress has managed to snub and upstage the opposition parties, especially BJP, albeit in a messy way.


The latter may well castigate the remark as unseemly, undermining the authority of the union cabinet and especially the prime minister. They may have sniffed arrogance and propensity to issuing diktats by Congress party’s first family and explain it away as the clinching evidence of their oft repeated postulation of the asymmetry in the power equation between the Congress party and the UPA government. But the fact is that like a clap of thunder this inexperienced, reluctant political understudy showed a kind of pluck and called a spade a spade, which almost nobody thought possible in the prevailing culture of unprincipled partisan politics that encourage and prefer expediency over one’s better judgment.  



It is not as though the Congress has been covering itself with glory over these past four years of the UPA government’s second innings. Financial scams of ever increasing scale have been unearthed by government’s own audit watchdog, the CAG, to its chagrin and discomfiture. The attempts by the government first to minimize the scale of corruption, then doggedly shield the corrupt ministers, bureaucrats and cronies in the industry and business (in the case of the Coal Gate, even obfuscate if not obstruct investigation through disappearance of crucial official files and documents) have not convinced anybody other than the Congress party loyalists about the probity and sense of purpose of the government. No wonder that these disclosures helped the opposition parties in sharpening their attack on Congress inside the parliament and outside.


Almost as a sequel to the above corruption saga, the July 2013 judgment of the Supreme Court brought into focus the other related malady of our electoral politics, namely, the entry and continuance of criminal elements in our political system, including the highest legislative bodies like the Parliament. The untiring work of the civil society and rights groups over the years have revealed that a large number of our elected representatives not just have criminal records as declared by them in their affidavits to the election commission and many are charge-sheeted by the police, but at any time about 30 % of our MPs and MLAs are convicted by some law courts in the country for offences that mandated a prison term of 2 years or more. To be fair it is not the Congress party alone that suffers from this ‘criminal’ distinction. The BJP, the SP, the RJD, and the BSP and even some other parties have many such criminal elements as elected representatives. Normally such convicted criminals should have been straight away disqualified for both contesting and remaining members of the legislative bodies. But by a convenient legal loophole in the Representation of the People Act (RPA), parties have been extending a lifeline to their convicted leaders, by simply appealing to a higher court against the lower court order convicting them and getting a stay within a small stipulated period.


The Supreme Court judgment summarily put an end to that as ultra vires to the Constitution. Without going into the fine legal arguments sustaining this judgment the most significant point about this is that for the same offence an ordinary Indian and a people’s representative were so far facing different consequences. Law should be the same for every body. This simple assertion, which is supposed to be axiomatically true was being routinely subverted by the political class, and the highest court in the country tried its best to correct this anomaly and earned the gratitude of every right thinking citizen of the country.


And in the process also earned the bilious rage of the politicians of all hues as their great privilege was about to be discontinued with immediate effect. Congress party took the lead through an all-party meeting to reach a consensus about bringing about a bill in the Parliament making the requisite changes in the RPA so that the elected representatives can continue to hold their position despite conviction, with some marginal restriction. Practically every party, including the BJP, supported the move. But somehow between that meeting and the actual debate in the Parliament when the bill was introduced, the principal opposition party and also smaller parties like BJD, CPI etc, were smart enough to sense the public mood (to be more accurate the mood of the articulate and educated middle class) and opposed the bill brought by the ruling party. When at the end of an acrimonious day of debate the bill was referred to the standing committee, it was clear that the political class bought some time for themselves.


But time was running out for Congress and some of the allied parties. An important UPA ally like Lalu Prasad Yadav’s longstanding fodder case trial was coming to an end and with a conviction with sentence exceeding two years more than likely his automatic disqualification as MP seemed imminent. Another Congress MP, Rasheed Masood, was about to be convicted over a two-decade old corruption charge with a similar sentence. Being summarily denied of a privilege they have gotten so used to (just like the red beacon on their cars) is something some of the die-hard Congress old guard could not digest. There was also this arrogance of power, feeling of hurt among some cabinet ministers who pride themselves as the legal eagles being forced to bite dust on their own legislative turf.   A determined government pushed the so-called Congress Core group into resolving to bring the law by the backdoor of an ordinance to be regularized later in the parliament’s winter session. The ‘criminal’ (!) ordinance was prepared, passed by the cabinet and was sent to the President for signing. Meanwhile droves of Congress spokespersons including some ministers started defending the ordinance in press meets and on television talk shows giving unconvincing reasons and citing the resolutions of the all party meeting.


That the main opposition party went to town crying hoarse (including protesting to the President) about the Congress party’s mala fide intentions in pushing the bill as an ordinance and parading their own consistent stand opposing the bill since the parliament debate was not surprising. They had cynically estimated that their current losses, if any, due to the application of the new legal provision, would be more than made up by cornering the Congress in the forthcoming assembly elections later this year if they can get on to the right side of the enormously negative public opinion about the ordinance, partially expressed in the newspaper polls and those flooding the social media. But two important related developments interceded on behalf of the ruling party and took the wind out of the opposition’s sail. 


The President’s discomfort with the unseemly way the bill was being pushed apart from his principled disapproval of its content was rumoured to have thrown a spanner in the works of the Congress managers’ plan. There could be another subtle angle to it. Pranab Mukherjee, the Congressman was, probably, the best troubleshooter the party ever had. Through his untiring efforts as a party manager and a minister in the government he had succeeded in diffusing many crises the government had faced over his five decades old career.  In absence of sane senior voices (including that of Mrs Sonia Gandhi) warning about the hara-kiri the party was about to commit, it was his cautionary words advising the law minister (according to some, one of the architects of the ordinance) about reconsidering the step, even if so late in the day, set the stage of the recovery for Congress. BJP may try to take credit about warning the President, but to keen observers, he did not need any outside prodding to understand the political implications of either the bill or the ordinance for the party, which is most likely still close to his heart.


The second was the snowballing of the collective uneasiness of the younger generation in the Congress party and the government. Being in better touch with the young prospective voters who were actively showing their displeasure and increasingly strident condemnation in the social media, they have had an inkling about the tsunami of negative public opinion about their party’s cynical self-serving response to the court judgment. Vinod Mehta, Editor of Outlook India, recounted in his Times of India article how Ajay Maken, an ex-cabinet minister and a Congress spokesman, privately suggested to the journalists and magazine editors like him who were about to meet Rahul Gandhi that they impress upon the latter the folly his party was about to commit.


It now seems clear that many from this youth brigade, even if their public utterances were muted or, as in the case of Maken, were cringing in the effort to defend the indefensible, feared that their party alone would be left upholding the so-called resolution of the all party meeting that most opposition parties are now conveniently denying to have had anything to do with. How exactly their collective political instinct played out within the party will probably never be known. But it is interesting that those who had planned the final assault certainly had figured that it was only a ‘sledge hammer’ action delivered by the potential future inheritor of the party mantle, who enjoys unquestionable allegiance from everybody in the party, that will put an end to the arrogant, unilateral and opaque decision making clique about which the Gandhi scion obliquely spoke during the Jaipur meet earlier this year. There will certainly be a loss of face for the government, but the Congress party will survive. And of course, in the process Rahul Gandhi’s political arrival would be strongly underlined.


And that is how two apparent ‘outsiders’ acted at the right moment to hold the party back from the precipice. Better late than never. And all’s well that ends well !

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