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A masterstroke

Print edition : Apr 07, 2006 T+T-

Sonia Gandhi's "second renunciation" helps the Congress score political points in the "office of profit" debate.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

IT was a "second renunciation"; Congress president Sonia Gandhi was renouncing power for a second time in less than two years, to the great anguish of party workers. It was also the second masterstroke - the second time she silenced her critics in the Opposition by bowing out of office.

The immediate reaction of party workers to Sonia Gandhi's resignation from the Lok Sabha and the chairpersonship of the National Advisory Council (NAC) on March 23 was a show of desperation. Party workers from Tamil Nadu who had come to New Delhi to attend a meeting rushed to 10 Janpath, her residence, raised slogans against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for "dragging Soniaji into the `office of profit' controversy, hurting her and thus causing her resignation", and implored her to withdraw the resignation. Union Minister E.V.K.S. Elangovan, who reached the scene, tried to calm their nerves by reasoning that "a mother always makes sacrifices for her children". But many of those who gathered there saw beyond the mother allegory a realpolitik dimension, which was more important than the emotional quotient. "What would have happened to the party if Madam had not taken this step?" wondered one of them.

The answer came pat, from the group of party workers itself: "The party would have faced extreme political discomfiture with far-reaching consequences." The reference was obviously to the recent goings-on within the Congress, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by it and the country's polity, including the sine die adjournment of Parliament's Budget session. It was also admitted by many Congress workers and leaders that the reactions to the latest manoeuvres in the larger political firmament were putting the party and the government on the defensive. A Delhi-based Congress activist, however, felt that "in one fell swoop Sonia Gandhi has taken the sting out of all the potential political damage".

This appreciation, based essentially on pragmatic political concerns, is the single most important qualitative difference between the present "show of sentiment" and the one that had unravelled before 10 Janpath in May 2004, when Sonia Gandhi had responded to her " inner voice" and declined the post of Prime Minister. Congress leaders such as Abhishek Manu Singhvi have tried to project the recent show of agitation by partymen as the representation of an " uncontrolled and uncontrollable affection of the people for Sonia Gandhi" and an "expression of popular anger against the machinations of the BJP-led Opposition", but the overarching view within various levels of the party hierarchy is one that lauds the "political masterstroke" of the leader. A veteran party leader from South India succinctly described this perception by characterising Sonia Gandhi's action as a bold initiative that has taken the party out of a series of erroneous steps.

The "erroneous steps" referred to had manifested themselves in many ways and forms. In concrete terms, the most disturbing move of the Congress leadership had come in the form of the government directive to adjourn Parliament sine die on March 22, doing away with the second phase of the Budget session.

Normally the Budget session has a recess period, during which various parliamentary committees would examine in detail the Budget proposals relating to departments under their purview. This customary exercise, which has existed since the inception of the Indian Parliament, was done away with on the grounds that the Budget and the major Bills relating to it had been passed in the first phase of the session itself.

More sordid was the perceived reason for this abnormal step. Throughout the day on which the adjournment took place, representatives of the government and the Opposition debated the impending issuance of an ordinance that would help prevent the disqualification of 44 MPs, including Sonia Gandhi, on charges of holding offices of profit. The BJP, on its part, saw the proposed ordinance as a potent political instrument to embarrass the Congress and Sonia Gandhi. Its leadership singled out Sonia Gandhi as the main beneficiary of the proposed ordinance as she held the position of Chairperson of the NAC.

The BJP leadership pointed out that the NAC was run entirely with funds from the Central government and the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). The Opposition party was confident that a campaign on this issue would help it deal credible and telling blows to the UPA in general and Sonia Gandhi in particular, especially in the context of the adjournment of Parliament.

It was in this context that Sonia Gandhi came up with her resignation. Taking on the BJP campaign directly, she said "some people in the country have been trying to create an atmosphere as if the government and Parliament are being used only to favour me" and that "it has immensely hurt" her. She reiterated that she had "not joined politics and public life for any personal gains" and hence to uphold "the ideals of public life and politics and personal belief" she was resigning from Lok Sabha membership.

As Congress activists themselves have deduced, the motherly "sacrifice" has indeed taken the party out of a potential quagmire.

In one stroke, it has also taken the debate on adjournment of Parliament and a detailed examination of the contours of the proposed "office of profit" ordinance out of public purview. But, by any yardstick, these are only temporary reprieves. The larger questions that have arisen will come back to disturb the government even in the medium term. Especially since the question of legislators holding offices of profit pertains to the entire country. The government will have to address this issue soon and in doing so, it would have to take care to steer clear of the urge to score political points.

This premise calls for a fundamental shift in the approach of the Congress on the issue. It has to show greater accommodation of common issues facing all parties. The "office of profit" controversy had captured headlines for over two months and for most part of this period, the Congress' reactions were essentially dictated by a hidebound approach.

The reasons were not far to seek. During this period, the focus was on two Samajwadi Party (S.P.) members of the Rajya Sabha, Jaya Bachchan and party general secretary Amar Singh. Jaya Bachchan is the Chairperson of the Uttar Pradesh Film Development Corporation and Amar Singh is the Chairman of the Uttar Pradesh Development Council. A petition filed by Madan Mohan Shukla, a Congress activist from Uttar Pradesh, against Jaya Bachchan was before the President and the Election Commission during this period and it finally resulted in the disqualification of Jaya Bachchan on March 17.

Amar Singh had warned on March 17 that Jaya Bachchan's disqualification would open a Pandora's box and that the Central government needed to act fast in the interests of politicians and public servants who have to assume various responsibilities to render public service. He said that the Mulayam Singh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh had taken a step in this direction by notifying that some crucial institutions were not offices of profit.

He suggested that the Central government adopt this measure in order to prevent a mayhem that would be caused by disqualification of members in the various State legislatures.

The Congress leadership did not take the suggestion seriously, though what followed validated Amar Singh's warning. The petition of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the S.P.'s new-found ally in national politics, against Sonia Gandhi, Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha Karan Singh and Union Minister T. Subbarama Reddy was referred to the Election Commission by the President, virtually paving the way for the disqualification of all the three. It was in this background that reports about a prospective ordinance came up. The adjournment of Parliament lends credence to allegations about backdoor manoeuvres of the Congress.

Political observers and parties, including the allies of the Congress and the UPA, were rather surprised at the Congress' adoption of the ordinance route as a protective mechanism for MPs could have been evolved through legislation in Parliament since the UPA has the majority for the passage of such a a Bill.

Even the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had indicated that it would not oppose such a piece of legislation, because legislators in the States headed by it were facing similar disqualification threats..

By all indications, the Congress did not want a discussion on the perks involved in the various positions held by its MPs, including that of the NAC Chairperson. Political circles are agog with stories about how Union Law Minister H.R. Bharadwaj and his associates were shocked at the prospect of the party's supreme leader having to respond to notices from an institution like the Election Commission. The passage of a Bill would have taken time and in the meantime the members holding "offices of profit" would have had to respond to the notices.

After the resignation of Sonia Gandhi and the positive popular reaction it is supposed to have generated, the Congress hardened its approach. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Priyaranjan Das Munshi went on to deny the proposal to issue an ordinance. He said the government was not even planning to introduce a Bill. Interpreted in realpolitik terms, this only indicates a stance that "our leader has resigned and we have made mileage, let others who are facing charges face political discomfiture for some time."

Meanwhile, the mayhem predicted by Amar Singh has come true in the legislatures of Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. The efforts of the BJP-led governments in both States to ratify some offices as non-profit positions led to difficult situations.

In Jharkhand there were unruly scenes in the State Assembly when members of the Opposition Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha-Congress alliance resorted to the breaking of chairs and tables. In Madhya Pradesh, the House was adjourned indefinitely.

Clearly, the "offices of profit" question is going out of control. The NDA and also the Left parties, which are supporting the UPA government from outside, have called for the immediate convening of Parliament to pass necessary legislation to clear the confusion. It remains to be seen whether the Congress will shed its intention of making political capital out of the situation, especially since nine MPs of the Left parties are also facing charges of holding offices of profit and in view of the fact that the Congress is fighting electoral battles in Kerala and West Bengal against the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

SOME GUIDELINES

1954: In the Ravabba Subanna vs G.S. Kaggeerappa case on whether the Chairman of the Gubbi Taluk Development Committee could be said to be holding an "office of profit", the Supreme Court distinguished between "remuneration" and compensation for "out of pocket expenditure".

1958: In Maulana Abdul Shakur vs Rikhab Chand and another, the court considered the case of a manager of a school run by a committee under the Dargah Khwaja Saheb Act, 1955, and held that as the candidate concerned was neither appointed by the Government of India nor was he removable by it, the post was not an "office of profit".

1970: In Kanta Kathuria vs Manak Chand Surana, the court considered the case of an advocate, who held an office of Special Government Pleader under the Government of Rajasthan to conduct arbitration cases for the government, and ruled that the term "office" must be considered in the context, and that the State had the right to pass retrospective ordinances.

1971: In Shivamurthy Swami vs Agadi Sanganna Andanappa, the court summarised the tests that may be applied to determine whether an "office" is an office of profit under the State government.

1992: In Shibu Soren vs Dayanand Sahay the Supreme Court found Soren guilty on the grounds that the office of Chairman of the Interim Jharkhand Area Autonomous Council was an office of profit because the power of appointment, removal, dismissal and absolute control of the post vested in the State government.

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