In India corruption has permeated every layer of the country. At least a couple of large-scale scams amounting to hundreds of crores of rupees are unraveled every year. And behind every misappropriation of funds, there is a deep political nexus. Though the regular charade of CBI inquiries and other legal procedures gets enacted, few politicians actually get convicted. While the election commission is implementing amendments like the Right to Reject in an attempt to cleanse the political system of our country, the recent move of Congress-led UPA Government is a stark contradiction. The actions of the government raise a pointed question: has the UPA Government now resorted to harboring and protecting criminals?
The question arises as a direct consequence of the government’s recent attempts to introduce a dictum that would supposedly grant impunity to the politicians pronounced guilty in criminal proceedings. The sanction of the new ordinance by the UPA cabinet is a direct violation of the Supreme Court verdict which expressly mandates politicians/legislators/lawmakers found guilty after criminal proceedings with two years or more of jail sentence, with immediate debarment. The Supreme Court judgment also prohibited convicted individuals from contesting elections. The new ordinance of the UPA cabinet has provisions of not only granting immunity to a convicted politician/legislator but also allowance for carrying out his official responsibilities, subject to the condition that his plea against guilty status is sanctioned by a higher court within a stipulated period of 90 days. Also, if the said politician can acquire a stay order on his conviction sentence from a higher court, he will be free to appear in parliament or state assembly sessions. Only his voting right will be cancelled, and no salary will be sanctioned for him as a government employee.
Rahul Gandhi’s reaction
The new ordinance was passed in a union cabinet meeting which was chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and attended by all the senior Congress and UPA leaders. The said ordinance was expected to be backed by all the important Congress leaders. But the reaction of the 43-year-old Congress vice president came as a total surprise. Rahul Gandhi exploded vehemently regarding the passing of the ordinance, remarking, “My opinion of the ordinance is that it is complete nonsense and should be torn up and thrown away”. Rahul Gandhi’s severe reprimand of the union cabinet’s actions was naturally a source of dismay to the Congress leaders, especially since he is looked upon as the best possible candidate for the position of the prime minister if the UPA government is again brought to power in the 2014 elections. Rahul Gandhi in fact marched into a press meet at the Press Club of India and denounced the ordinance in front of the chief party spokesman Ajay Maken, the assembled journalists, and various other party members. He emphasized the fact that this decision of the government was an error, and that time has come for the political parties to abandon their practice of arriving at decisions backed solely by political motives.
The reaction of those assembled was of utter astonishment. Keeping in mind the future profile of the Congress vice president, many Congress leaders immediately changed color in support of Rahul Gandhi’s denouncement of the said ordinance. As commented by a senior Congress party leader, “Today was the most appropriate day. He chose to speak at the decisive moment when the president was to take a decision”. Ajay Maken, one of the chief propagators of the concept of the new ordinance, also lost no time to fall in line with Rahul Gandhi, as is evident from his statement, “Rahul ji’s opinion is the opinion and the line of Congress. . . . Now Congress party is opposed to this ordinance. The views of the Congress Party should always be supreme”. However, it is evident that through his condemnation of the ordinance, Rahul Gandhi had severely undermined the position of the PM at a crucial time just before his US visit to meet the US President Barack Obama and the Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif. Rahul, however, rectified his actions through a written communication to the PM, which said, “I realize what I feel about the ordinance is not in harmony with the cabinet decision and the core group’s view. . . . You know I have the highest respect for you . . . I hope you will understand the strength of my conviction about this very controversial issue.”
Reaction of the other party leaders
If the Congress was looking for support from the opposition, it was mistaken. Arun Jaitly, BJP opposition leader, Rajya Sabha, simply sideswiped the government’s move, as evident from his statement, “This is the highly belated decision of what constitutes nonsense . . . well the government makes mistakes, rest of the world make mistakes, but the first family of the Congress doesn’t make mistakes”. Lok Sabha opposition leader Sushma Swaraj reacted in a similar manner, writing on Twitter, “Union Cabinet has approved ordinance on convicted MPs. We are opposed to this. We request the president not to sign this ordinance. The president is not obliged to sign an ordinance that is unconstitutional”. Furthermore, Congress party leaders like Sandeep Dikshit, Digvijaya Singh and Milind Deora openly conveyed their doubts about the ordinance. It is to be mentioned here that President Pranab Mukherjee, whose signature was mandatory on the said ordinance, refused to comply until further elucidations on the issue were available to him.
The move of the Supreme Court against the ordinance
On July 10, 2013 the Supreme Court unhesitatingly ruled out any ordinance that grants immunity to convicted politicians/legislators. The court also refused to consider any appeal on the part of the government regarding the revision of the verdict, but agreed to consider the government’s plea regarding the appearance of jailed/arrested individuals as probable election contestants.
Decision of the government regarding the stalemate of the ordinance
Unable to withstand the vitriolic criticism of the opposition party leaders, the public, and the media, the union cabinet finally aborted process of passing the ordinance on 2 October 2013. With the vice president of the party openly denouncing the ordinance and the non-compliance of the president himself, the union cabinet had their hands tied. Besides, the judgment of the Apex Court also went against the passing of the ordinance. While Rahul Gandhi cleared up his position with the PM regarding his public outburst condemning the ordinance, the primary decision of withdrawing the ordinance was arrived at in a Core Group Meeting of the Congress Party held at the residence of the PM (7, Race Course, New Delhi). The meeting was attended by the Congress Party Chief Sonia Gandhi, accompanied by her secretary Ahmed Patel. The minister of information and broadcasting, Manish Tewari confirmed the withdrawal of the ordinance in his statement, “Yes, central government was in favor of ordinance, but union cabinet has taken a decision and I am just communicating the same to you. The union cabinet has decided to withdraw the ordinance and bill; the process to withdraw them will be initiated in the Parliament”.
The ordinance that could have been the source of immense reprieve for convicted/part-convicted/under-investigation politicians has now gone up in smoke. Considering the growing corruption in our political system, the passing of the ordinance would have merely made things worse. As correctly pointed out by Sushma Swaraj, such an amendment is highly unconstitutional and would have been a source of considerable damage to the democratic structure of our country.