Surprise attack

Print edition : November 01, 2013

BJP president Rajnath Singh. Photo: PTI

New Delhi: 06/09/2013: Former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and BSP chief Mayawati seen during the Delhi Pradesh State level on day 'Karyakarta Maha Sammelan' of BSP (Workers Convention) at Talkatora Stadium, in New Delhi on Friday. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh. Photo: V_Sudershan

THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which initially led the government to believe that it supported the ordinance move, later did a U-turn and tried to pose as the sole protector of probity in public life by urging the President not to sign the ordinance.

The truth is that the BJP is in favour of treating the subject of tainted leaders with a graded approach, separating those convicted for political activities and those convicted of criminal ones.

“We have to treat criminal offences arising out of political activities separately from heinous crimes. An MP or an MLA, otherwise of a clean image, being convicted for holding a rally without permission, which again is a criminal offence and can attract imprisonment for more than two years depending on the circumstances, cannot be treated at par with those who have been convicted for serious corruption charges, or murder, or rape. We have to have a grading so that people’s representatives are not totally handicapped by the apex court judgment,” a senior BJP leader told Frontline.

The BJP is therefore not unexpectedly silent on the Bill on the same issue. It has not, for instance, demanded that the Bill be withdrawn. “We need a thorough discussion on the Bill,” said Nirmala Sitharaman, party spokesperson.

The BJP’s ambivalence emboldened the government to go ahead with the ordinance, in order to save some of its crucial allies and its own leaders from immediate disqualification. The alacrity with which the BJP opposed the ordinance took the government by surprise. To this was added Rahul Gandhi’s tantrum, and the drama was complete. According to party insiders, the opposition to the ordinance also had something to do with Lalu Prasad. The ordinance could have saved the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader from immediate disqualification, a development that the BJP wanted to thwart.

BJP president Rajnath Singh insisted that there had been no change in the party’s stand on tainted leaders. “We are totally in support of convicted leaders being disqualified immediately,” he said.

Nirmala Sitharaman said the confusion regarding the party’s stand arose because there were two discussions at the same all-party meeting on two judgments by the same apex court Bench on the same day. “One was relating to Section 62(5) of the RP Act, which related to a person in custody being disqualified from voting and contesting elections, while the other pertained to Section 8(4) of the RP Act which related to convicted persons being disqualified. We certainly supported the government proposal regarding persons in custody because merely being in custody cannot be the ground for disqualification.” She further clarified that when the Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha, BJP member R. Ramakrishnan said on record that the move was “unconstitutional”. She pointed out that both Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley spoke on the issue and that senior BJP leaders also met the President and urged him not to sign the ordinance. “The President is not bound by the Cabinet’s advice on something that is unconstitutional. We explained to the President how the ordinance was not only unconstitutional but also unethical and illegal.”

Nirmala Sitharaman, however, added that her party was opposed to the manner in which the ordinance was discarded on the whim of one individual. “We feel sorry for the institution of the Prime Minister because the Congress has shown no regard for democratic processes. This, however, is not surprising because this is in Congress party’s DNA. They have no respect for democratic institutions,” she said. Meenakshi Lekhi, another BJP spokesperson, said the debate now should be about the quality of collective wisdom in the Congress party vis-a vis the leadership of individuals. “We would like to know whether the Congress vice-president was unaware of the matter when it was being deliberated upon at so many forums and bandied around between Congress and BJP leaders and when his own party’s core committee and the Union Cabinet were discussing it? We would certainly like to know whether the so-called leadership displayed by the Congress vice-president is at the whims and fancy of one individual or is part of an institutionalised democratic process,” she said.

S.P. against, BSP ambivalent

The Samajwadi Party wants the courts to stay off people’s representatives, while the Bahujan Samaj Party is for a thorough discussion on the issue. Both parties have a substantial number of tainted leaders. Mulayam Singh Yadav, S.P. supremo, who is openly critical of the way in which the ordinance was withdrawn, said: “We have to keep agitating for people’s causes and if we have the courts breathing down our neck for everything, how are we going to function?” Unlike the BJP, the S.P. has no compunction in openly stating that it wants the Supreme Court’s activism tempered. Its Rajya Sabha member Naresh Agrawal said, “As people’s representatives we get cases filed against us for all sorts of reasons and some of them result in conviction also. Should that be a reason for disqualifying us? Besides, there are four or five layers of legal avenues, and there have been many instances when a person convicted by a lower court is acquitted by a higher court. In such cases, would it be fair to disqualify a person merely on being convicted by a lower court?”

The BSP was more ambivalent. Party supremo Mayawati did tell the media in New Delhi recently that she wanted a thorough discussion on the judgment. The BSP, too, has indicated that it will want Parliament to debate the issue so that the apex court ruling can be softened. “Our leader has not yet given a statement on this issue yet. She is the only one authorised to speak so you will have to wait,” said a BSP leader when asked for his party’s position on the issue.

Purnima S. Tripathi