Debating India


An adjournment and a proposed ordinance

Thursday 23 March 2006, by KHARE*Harish

If the Congress amends by ordinance the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act, 1959, after adjourning Parliamentsine die,it will not save Sonia Gandhi from embarrassment.

THE CHAIRMAN of the Rajya Sabha, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, let the cat out of the bag on Wednesday evening, saying he had received a request from the Government to adjourn the house sine die. Had there been no request from the treasury benches, the Chairman’s announcement would have been that "the House stands adjourned till May 10."

The disruption in the two houses of Parliament and the Government’s request (made public by Mr. Shekhawat) confirmed an Indian Express story that the Manmohan Singh Government was planning to bring in an ordinance, making changes in the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act, 1959. The bottom-line of the proposed changes is to protect, among others, the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, from any potential disqualification on account of holding an "office of profit" under the 1959 law. A complaint has been filed against her, among others, that as Chairperson of the National Advisory Council she attracts the disqualification clause.

Now that the two houses of Parliament have been adjourned sine die, it is open for the Prime Minister to advise the President to prorogue the houses under Article 85(2) (a) of the Constitution. Once the houses stand prorogued, the Government can ask the President to promulgate the proposed ordinance, under Article 123(1). The constitutional sleight of hand is obvious.

The 1959 law was invoked a week ago to unseat the Samajwadi Party member, Jaya Bachchan. The Congress party managers suddenly found themselves having to factor in the possibility of a similar treatment being meted out to their party president. Though legal and bureaucratic opinion is almost unanimous in holding that the post of chairperson of the National Advisory Council does not constitute an `office of profit,’ the ruling establishment could not be sure what view the Election Commission would end up taking.

The B.B. Tandon-headed Commission has been deemed to be eminently unreceptive to the ruling establishment’s priorities. This lack of receptivity has been deemed to have got further aggravated now that the Commission itself is in a state of disruption. The Manmohan Singh Government-appointed Commissioner, Navin Chawla, is embroiled in a controversy.

What the Congress establishment accomplished on Wednesday was simply to distract distinctly from the Manmohan Singh Government’s prestige and standing. In one single stroke, the Congress party has given credence to the Opposition’s charge that Ms. Gandhi was the extra-constitutional authority behind the Government. The Leader of the Opposition, L.K. Advani, got it right when he pointed out in the Lok Sabha that there was glee on the treasury benches at Ms. Bachchan’s disqualification and now the same party was resorting to an ill-advised move to amend the law to "save" a particular individual.

The stratagem shows up the Congress party in rather poor light. Apart from showing the party managers to be inept strategists who could not think through the Jaya Bachchan disqualification move, by initiating the ordinance move the Congress has allowed itself to be bracketed with other parties whom it has all these years criticised for practising politics of moral indifference. It has chosen to place itself in the same league as, say, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, etc., unmindful of constitutional niceties. The P.V. Narasimha Rao-like indifference to ethical considerations has re-incarnated itself in the Manmohan Singh regime.

If the Congress party managers are to insist on amending the law by the ordinance route, they would be announcing to the world at large that Ms. Gandhi has exhausted all the moral capital that accrued to her in May 2004 when she declined the office of Prime Minister. For a person whose political image and persona stood, after May 2004, on some kind of a moral footing, the proposed ordinance bestows on her a very ordinary ordinariness.

The worst case scenario is that Ms. Gandhi could lose her membership of the Lok Sabha. A minor embarrassment, vastly disproportionate to the erosion of moral leadership. But the potential loss of the Lok Sabha seat would in no way have diluted her authority and leadership in the Congress party. Between March 1998 and October 1999, she was Chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party without being a member of either house of Parliament.

Ms. Gandhi derives her authority by virtue of her control over the Congress organisation, a control that gets further reinforced by the perception of her mass appeal. It is this special tryst with the masses that sustains her leadership, not the office of chairperson of the National Advisory Council.

There is a larger issue at stake. The party of Jawaharlal Nehru cannot be allowed to treat the institution of Parliament in so cavalier a manner as did the Congress parliamentary managers on Wednesday. The sanctity of the Budget timetable cannot be sacrificed for the sake of bringing in an ordinance, whatever be the urgency.

Above all, the Congress party has managed to display a remarkable indifference to the matrix of good governance. At the heart of this matrix is the nobility of law, not the convenience of the political class.

Should the Manmohan Singh Government continue to persist in its too clever by half ploy to amend by an ordinance the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act, 1959, the President would be lauded if he were to "sit" on it.

See online : The Hindu

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