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Enjoyer of an office of super-profit

Sunday 26 March 2006, by KULKARNI*Sudheendra

Sunday, March 26 : During my six years in the PMO, two qualities of Atal Behari Vajpayee left a deep impress on me. He uses his words thoughtfully. Even his famous one-liners are the end-products of deep mental mining and refining. Secondly, I always felt that he has a sixth sense about events in politics.

In a poem he penned on his birthday in 1993, he wrote: ??Mujhe door ka dikhayi deta hai/ Main deewar par likha padh sakta hoon/ Magar haath ki rekhayen nahin padhta (I cannot read the palm, but I can see distant events, I can read the writing on the wall).’’ Example: he had read the writing on the wall in the 2004 elections. Although most pollsters and BJP leaders were certain about his government’s return to power, Atalji had realised, several days before polling ended, that the outcome would be otherwise.

His sixth sense was again in evidence on Wednesday evening when NDA MPs marched to Rashtrapati Bhavan to protest against the UPA Government’s decision to close Parliament’s budget session in order to promulgate a save-Sonia ordinance. In the customary press briefing after the meeting with the President, L K Advani did what he is best at: he presented the opposition’s case with eloquence and controlled aggression.

Mid-way through the briefing, the former prime minister arrived, anguish writ large on his face. A reporter asked him: ??Atalji, will the Government bring in an ordinance?’’ He reflected for a moment and replied, ??Mujhe nahin lagta ki sarkar ordinance layegi (I don’t think so).’’ The reply surprised many, including myself, standing there. How can Atalji say this, when it was evident to one and all that an ordinance was on its way and Parliament’s sine die adjournment was meant only to pave the way? After a pause, he gave the second part of his reply: ??Aur agar ordinance laayegi, to ordinance ke saath sarkar bhi chali jaayegi (And if the ordinance is indeed brought in, the Government too will go along with the ordinance).’’

Prophetic words. Distillation of 50 years of parliamentary experience plus that rare sixth sense. Now you see why, after Dr Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet burnt midnight oil over giving final touches to the ordinance, it dropped the idea like a hot potato the very next day. Caught red-handed, many worthies in the Government are claiming that promulgating an ordinance (first broken by a bombshell-of-a-report by R Venkataraman in this paper) had never crossed their minds, that it’s only a figment of the opposition’s imagination, and that Parliament was adjourned sine die only because it had completed all its listed business.

Another lie. Passage of the Finance Bill is not the only business of the Budget session. Many issues of national importance are waiting to be discussed by parliamentarians; after all, that’s what the people have elected them for.

But a far bigger lie was enacted on Thursday afternoon at 10 Janpath, with all the theatrics of a cunning political plot. In announcing her resignation, Sonia Gandhi sanctimoniously said that she was ??hurt’’ by some people ??creating an atmosphere in the country as if the Government and Parliament were being used only for my benefit’’.

Soniaji, every verifiable fact about what your own party and government functionaries were doing from morning till midnight the previous day goes to prove that the Government and Parliament were indeed being used mainly for your benefit. The ??benefit’’ accruing from the ordinance to other MPs facing disqualification for holding offices of profit was of secondary consideration for your strategists. And don’t tell us that you knew nothing, and had not approved, of their strategy (of getting Parliament closed and preparing an ordinance). Which is why, during your deliberately brief press interaction, you cleverly evaded questions about the ordinance and Parliament’s adjournment, questions that could have put you on the mat.

It’s not ??the right thing to do’’ for a leader to cover up the wrongdoings of one’s own party and government-wrongdoings that have landed the entire political establishment in a messy and avoidable crisis. The past few days have witnessed a bizarre profanation of noble terms such as ??sacrifice’’, ??martyrdom’’ and ??political morality’’. Even Dr Manmohan Singh, an honorable man, has demeaned himself by becoming a super-sycophant and praising the person who nominated him as prime minister as ??the country’s tallest leader’’ with ??a rare commitment to moral values’’.

Where is the ??sacrifice’’ on Sonia Gandhi’s part, when she has declared her intention to regain her Lok Sabha seat from Rae Bareli? Where is the ??sacrifice’’ when her disqualification seemed reasonably certain under the same law that axed Jaya Bachchan’s Rajya Sabha membership? The archaic 1959 law on ?office of profit’ is indeed an ass that’s waiting to be amended into a creature suited to today’s conditions. But why didn’t the Government bring in a Bill to amend it right at the beginning of the Budget session, when it could have got the support of all the parties? Instead, Congress leaders, because of their vengeful attitude towards political opponents, first conspired to get Jaya Bachchan disqualified under that law. They were full of glee when their plot succeeded. It’s only when they discovered that the plot could devour their own leader that they scripted a new ??sacrifice’’ act for her.

In an educative article in The Indian Express on Thursday, Subhash Kashyap, former secretary general of the Lok Sabha, has shown how chairmanship of the National Advisory Council is an ?office of profit’ under the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act. Indeed, what Sonia Gandhi was enjoying was more than that. It was an office of super-profit, if we see this sentence in Kashyap’s article-??Profit doesn’t necessarily mean remuneration in cash, but it certainly means some kind of advantage or gain.’’

Well, consider the advantage that chairpersonship of the NAC (which was specially created for her, there being no provision for it in the Constitution) brought to her. She earned free publicity at the expense of Central and state (Congress-run) governments, which carried her picture in all official advertisements, giving her greater prominence than to the Prime Minister. She got to fly in the Defence Minister’s aircraft on politically beneficial visits to Kashmir (after the earthquake) and the Andamans (after the tsunami). On paper, she was only accompanying the Defence Minister, who alone can requisition IAF aircraft. In reality, Pranab Mukherjee was her subordinate fellow-traveller. At all the places that Soniaji visited, TV cameras showed him standing dutifully behind her. NAC chairpersonship brought other political benefits too, which none of the other MPs holding other ?offices of profit’ can even dream of. It’s one of the worst-kept secrets in the capital that the National Security Advisor, who has brought all the intelligence agencies under his tight command, used to regularly brief Sonia Gandhi. In fact, political intelligence gathered by the IB would go first to her, and only cursorily, if at all, to the Prime Minister. Political and bureaucratic appointments were decided almost exclusively by 10 Janpath.

Her extra-constitutional conduct was rationalised on the ground that she held a governmental office. Curiously, with all the power she enjoyed as the ??super’’ Prime Minister, she never had to answer a single question about the NAC in Parliament. What unique immunity from parliamentary accountability! And yet, her sycophants hailed her as a ??tyag murti’’ when she declined premiership and accepted a more powerful perch in the NAC.

Now that the Damocles’ sword of disqualification, rather than the ??inner voice’’ of May 2004, has forced Sonia Gandhi to make yet another ??sacrifice’’, I cannot help recall Karl Marx of my college days. ??History repeats itself,’’ Marx said, ??first as tragedy, second time as farce.’’ It may not have been a tragedy in 2004, but farce it certainly is in 2006.

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