Only the first step to change

Published : Apr 21, 2006 00:00 IST

Sonia Gandhi's resignation affirms democratic virtue and should trigger reform of the "office-for-profit" law and a radical rethink in the Congress.

CONGRESS president Sonia Gandhi has sprung a big surprise upon the public by doing something that few politicians do when in difficulty or under siege: resign from office - both as Member of Parliament and as chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC) of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This has at once taken the wind out of her opponents' sails, reaffirmed (if that was at all necessary) her exceptional or unique status in her own party, and electrified the UPA into abandoning the dubious political course it took while dealing with the contentious "office of profit" issue.

Ever since the issue intruded into public debate with a petition seeking the disqualification of Jaya Bachchan as a Samajwadi Party MP, the UPA - in particular the Congress - went into jitters, fearing that Sonia Gandhi too would meet the same fate. To avert it, the party resorted to what it has long been known for, and perhaps comes naturally to some of its leaders: devious and stealthy manipulation of the political system by exploiting its loopholes and cutting corners - even if that means sailing close to the wind.

It took the deplorable decision to amend the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act, 1959 through an ordinance rather than through a regular parliamentary Bill, which would be scrutinised and debated, as it should be. To facilitate its passage, it aborted the Parliament session although it was only due to go into recess until May.

Sonia Gandhi not only put a welcome end to these devious manoeuvres. She did so specifically by affirming the idea of "doing the right thing", in contrast to doing the easy, expedient or convenient thing. It is not often that we hear this discourse in India, which seeks - even if only self-avowedly - to combine political principle with pragmatism.

Sonia Gandhi's motives for doing so have been hotly debated: was her resignation only a tactical gesture or a move inspired by a serious concern for the "values of public life" and "ideals" (among which she emphasised secularism)? Was it a political "masterstroke", or the result of obedience to her "inner voice"?

To my mind, these questions are, beyond a point, irrelevant. A mix of motives was probably at work. Depending on their content and proportion, one can praise or criticise them. What is material - and incontestable - is the positive effect that her action has had. Even if it was a mere tactic, it was a good tactic, which upheld upright public conduct. And good tactics are by definition preferable to bad tactics, such as resorting to further political manipulation, bypassing Parliament, brazening out criticism, and clinging to positions of power/authority by subverting the spirit of democracy.

It is only very seldom that public figures who are capable of abusing their power (and who often abuse it) decide not to do so, and instead come clean. When they do, they should be welcomed and complimented - regardless of their motives. It is only natural and reasonable to expect politicians - like other people - to protect and advance their interest. What matters is how they choose to do so. Sonia Gandhi did it in a commendable manner by invoking a larger cause than her own - or her party's - narrow interests.

Such actions can spur a general raising of the norms and standards of public conduct and further the cause of responsible governance - independently of motives.

Sonia Gandhi has undoubtedly enhanced her own stature. She has also checkmated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had launched its trade-mark campaign centred on xenophobia, intolerance and male-supremacism, and focussed on Sonia Gandhi as the root of all evil in Indian politics. But she has done more. Implicit in her action is a radical departure from the Machiavellian tactics that the Congress (and the BJP) have come to be associated with in the public mind.

The logic of her resignation should trigger two processes: comprehensive reform of the 1959 Disqualification Act, based on a thorough and serious public debate on the "office-of-profit" issue; and a reconsideration by the Congress of matters such as its long-term vision and strategies to realise it through policies and programmes. Neither will be easy.

The idea of disqualifying holders of "offices of profit" from becoming legislators derives from the principle of separation of powers, which is essential to democracy. MPs/MLAs [Members of Legislative Assembly] should not hold executive offices because that will jeopardise their ability to impartially discharge their primary and irreplaceable function of scrutinising the executive and holding it accountable to the public. The principle is unexceptionable, but it has not been properly translated into practice.

For one, "office of profit" has not been defined either in the Constitution or in the 1959 Act and numerous State laws on the issue. The Constitution only disqualifies a person holding an "office of profit" from becoming President (Article 58(2)), Vice-President (Article 66(4)), Members of Parliament (Article 102(1)), or a State Legislator (Article 191(1)).

For another, there is no conceptual clarity on the criteria to be used for exempting certain offices - Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission, members of the statutory commissions on the Scheduled Castes, minorities and women, or of official delegations sent abroad, and the Sheriffs of three metropolitan cities and so on - but not others. The exclusions have been piecemeal and arbitrary. They were executed through repeated amendments of the 1959 Act whenever expedient. And for a third, the procedure to bring about disqualification is open to abuse and can be easily deployed to harass/embarrass one's opponents.

Before disqualifying a legislator, there must be a clear determination that a conflict of interest is indeed involved. It is hard to see this in Jaya Bachchan's case. The Election Commission's dismissal of her appeal, citing "five criteria", seems to involve a misinterpretation of the Supreme Court's 1971 guidelines. Again, the NAC is an "advisory" body, whose advice is not binding on the government. It "monitors" government programmes, but lacks the oversight powers of the kind that, say, the Comptroller and Auditor-General has.

All this calls for an unambiguous delineation of the relevant criteria and their incorporation into a new law, which will facilitate the independent functioning of both executive and legislature while not losing the opportunity to get legislators' inputs into policies and programmes.

As Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer once said: "Our Constitution mandates the state to undertake multiform public activities on a massive scale... [Given this], can we keep out of elective posts... an army of non-officials who are wanted in various fields... as part-time participants in peoples' projects sponsored by the governments?" At the same time, the law must disallow and punish the widely prevalent practice (especially in the States) of dispensing patronage through sinecures and bogus or unnecessary posts like chairmanships of State corporations, dysfunctional committees, regional development boards, cooperative banks, agricultural marketing committees, and so on. This is typically used to "buy" legislative support.

Only a vigorous public debate leading to consensus can produce clarity on the issue and remove the stigma wrongly attached to disqualification, which is often incurred because of poor and imperfect laws, not a legislator's misdemeanour. This will help discredit our culture of political hypocrisy - which tolerates wrong-doing by legislators until they are fully charge-sheeted.

The Congress faces an even tougher task. It must ask itself searching questions about the purpose of politics and its vision of the future. These are precisely the issues that Sonia Gandhi implicitly raised. If vision has anything to do with equity, justice and popular welfare, then it cannot be fulfilled through the policies the party is following as it veers rightwards on the economy, trade, foreign affairs, security, secularism, and the social sector, including issues such as health, education, labour laws and privatisation of pension funds.

Logically, a massive change of policy priorities is now required if Congress politics is to have a universal or public purpose. The party must gird itself up for such interrogation and change.

Sonia Gandhi has shown more than once that her "natural instincts" - for instance, on combating the BJP head-on in the 2004 elections, on establishing a progressive Left-leaning NAC, and on the aam aadmi slogan - are more sound than her colleagues'. Yet, she has passively gone along with the UPA's right-veering policy shifts. Actively demanding a change in these can only build further on the positive move she made by resigning.

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