The second day of October is a public holiday in India as it marks the day the “father of the nation”, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was born. Last Wednesday, the 144th birth anniversary of Gandhi, turned out to be unusually turbulent politically — for reasons that may not have made a man who sought to uphold probity in public life very proud.
On Oct 2, the government withdrew a controversial ordinance and a bill that sought to allow legislators to continue in their posts even after they are convicted of criminal offences by a court of law.
The decision came after days of acrimonious political wrangling and public outrage followed by a sudden intervention by an important functionary of the party that leads the country’s ruling coalition. It was an event that threatens to undermine the position of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The functionary in this instance was 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Congress Party and son of Sonia Gandhi, the Italy-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi heads the party and the United Progressive Alliance coalition that has been in power in New Delhi for the last nine years.
The unexpected public intervention by Rahul Gandhi on Sept 27, trashing the ordinance as “utter nonsense”, came after the cabinet had approved it. That day, he suddenly showed up at a news conference by Congress spokesman Ajay Maken and remarked that the ordinance on convicted lawmakers should be “torn up and thrown away”.
Rahul’s sudden outburst came at a time when the prime minister was out of the country in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly and on a day after Singh’s 81st birthday. His remarks were all the more surprising — not just to his party compatriots but to the Indian public at large — because he has so far been perceived as a rather diffident politician who is reluctant to assume a position of responsibility.
Described mockingly by his political opponents as the “crown prince” of the ruling dynasty, Rahul amazed many with his denunciation of the attempt by his own party’s government to promulgate the ordinance. If passed, it would have overturned a July 10 judgement of the Supreme Court mandating the immediate disqualification of convicted legislators.
Rahul’s supporters believe he was simply trying to make the government accede to growing public opinion opposed to the leniency shown toward lawmakers who become lawbreakers. Those opposed to Rahul and his party portray it as an arrogant attempt by the Congress vice-president (and an ordinary MP) to undermine the authority of the prime minister.
Political analysts argue that what Rahul tried to do was steal the thunder from Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been extremely critical of the Congress-led government for having apparently turned a blind eye to corruption.
Whether Rahul Gandhi will be able to refurbish his party’s sullied image remains to be seen, but Modi’s campaign has attracted the attention of sections of India’s middle classes who are extremely unhappy with what they see as the incumbent government’s inability to curb graft and nepotism. They complain increasingly of an entrenched and corrupt nexus among sections of unscrupulous politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats and criminals.
The government’s unsuccessful attempt to allow convicted legislators to remain in their positions provided they had appeals pending in a higher court, was seen by many as a move to “protect” certain important politicians. They include the once-influential former railways minister and former chief minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav. (The party he heads, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, has been supporting the ruling coalition for more than four years.)
Yadav was convicted by a court for siphoning public funds meant for animal husbandry in what came to be popularly known as the “fodder scandal”. The charges had been pending in various courts for as long as 17 years before he was eventually convicted on Sept 30, thereby indicating how powerful politicians can delay the process of delivering justice.
Together with Yadav, another former chief minister of Bihar, Jagannath Mishra, was also convicted in the same scandal. Yadav on Thursday was sentenced to five years in jail and will lose his seat in the lower house, making him the second politician to be hit by the Supreme Court ruling in July, even as he pursues an appeal. Mishra received a four-year jail term.
Congress member Rasheed Masood last Tuesday was sentenced to four years in jail by a Delhi court in a different corruption case. Masood became the first Indian MP to lose his seat after the Supreme Court ruled that convicted legislators no longer had the immunity to continue in their positions so long as an appeal against their conviction was pending.
Masood was immediately taken into custody by the court after acquiring this dubious distinction. He was found guilty of abusing his discretionary powers as health in 1990 by fraudulently nominating undeserving candidates to seats in medical colleges in the northeastern state of Tripura. Two former bureaucrats were convicted with him.
The Singh government’s decision to withdraw the contentious ordinance on convicted lawmakers came after the prime minister on Monday told journalists accompanying him on his aircraft from New York that he was “not the master of what people say”.
After Rahul Gandhi’s unconventional intervention, he promptly wrote to Singh and also spoke to him, reportedly to assuage his hurt feelings and assure him that he had no intention of undermining his authority. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the damage he has done to the credibility and image of the premier, his party and government will not be easily undone.
Be that as it may, the events of the recent past are probably going to leave an indelible mark on the country’s contemporary history, six and half decades after Mahatma (the “great soul”) Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948 after he unsuccessfully sought to inculcate values of honesty in political leaders of newly independent India. But that’s another story.
The writer is an independent educator and journalist on the political economy of India.
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