Debating India


OoP, she did it again. Now someone has to work

Saturday 1 April 2006, by CHOWDURY*Neerja

Cong isn’t seeing past Sonia’s resignation but govt can’t lose sight of the complications ahead formulating a Bill on the issue

Rarely has the whole political class been caught in a controversy which was so needless, so time consuming, pushing other important matters like the budgetary exercise into the background. But while Sonia Gandhi may have side-stepped the office of profit (OoP) issue neatly with her resignation, and the Opposition is busy protecting its own ranks, the government still has to address three dimensions of the problem.

The first two were taken care of at the meeting of the Cabinet Committee of Parliamentary Affairs on Thursday. One, that a law would be introduced in Parliament, which would be reconvened from May 10 to 23. Two, there would be no all-party meeting to discuss the issue-instead, Pranab Mukherjee was deputed to talk to all the parties to evolve a consensus.

The third dimension, however, is one on which the ruling group is not yet clear-the kind of Bill to bring to get out of the jam that the political class finds itself in and to redefine an office of profit.

Many questions remain: Will the government also make a list of those posts which qualify as offices of profit, or will it just enlarge the list of offices which are exempt? Will the government assume for itself powers to modify this list by notification and without coming to Parliament? Will the Election Commission retain its powers to recommend disqualification of those holding offices of profit or will these powers get vested in a parliamentary committee?

But the Congress is in no hurry to act, now that its president is out of danger zone. Having burnt midnight oil to ready an ordinance, it is now quite happy to let the other parties sweat it out.

Like the BJP. Caught on the backfoot, with its MLAs in Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka holding what could be construed as offices of profit, the party can’t make up its mind on the extent to which it should cooperate with the government.

But also anxious are the Left parties, which had wanted Parliament to be convened sooner rather than later with nine of their own MPs-including Speaker Somnath Chatterjee-in the dock.

The Congress, though, is no hurry to oblige even the Left. Sonia apparently is quite annoyed with the Left’s flip-flop on the issue. According to sources, the Left parties had given their go-ahead for the ordinance, but once the news leaked out in The Indian Express and the BJP raised a storm, they changed their tune.

However, even within the Congress, there were reservations over bringing in an ordinance. When Home Minister Shivraj Patil first raised the idea with him, Mukherjee asked about the Law Ministry’s view. Patil returned with Law Minister H R Bhardwaj in tow, and Mukherjee fell in.

Till then, the Congress managers had been talking to other parties about the need to bring in a law to exempt certain offices and even forging the building of a consensus. But the party seemed to have panicked and thought of the ordinance idea at the last minute.

The presiding officers of the two Houses were told suddenly to adjourn them sine die as there was ??no more business to transact’’, when only three days earlier the Business Advisory Committee had met and fixed the business of Parliament from May 10, when the House was to reconvene after the assembly elections.

While the BJP was not in the loop, it seems Bhardwaj inadvertently let the cat out of the bag when he spoke to BJP leader Sushma Swaraj a day before the adjournment of the House, seeking her views on offices of profit.

On March 22, the same day as The Indian Express detailed the government’s ordinance plan, Parliament saw an uproar and was adjourned sine die and the BJP met the President urging him not to sign any such ordinance.

Later that evening on March 22, at a meeting with senior party leaders-including Mukherjee, Bhardwaj, Patil, Dasmunsi, Kapil Sibal and Ahmed Patel, but leaving out Prime Minister Manmohan Singh-Sonia asked if her resignation would help. While they all turned down the idea, Sonia’s mind was apparently made. During her speech in Rae Bareli on Wednesday, Sonia said she made the decision to quit after talking to her children Rahul and Priyanka.

On the morning of March 23, Ahmed Patel got in touch with the Prime Minister’s Office seeking to know who Sonia should address her resignation to if she took the decision to quit as the chairperson of the NAC, which comes directly under the PMO.

Meanwhile, word had been passed around that there might be an unlisted item on the agenda before the Cabinet, which met at 11 am that day. But things changed, and the ordinance did not come before the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister went into another meeting, this time it was the Cabinet Committee on Security, and it was there that he and his colleagues got word that Sonia had decided to resign. All the leaders present rushed to 10 Janpath.

See online : The Indian Express

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