Hindustan Times
New Delhi

As always, the political controversy will overshadow the real issues after the normally reticent Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi's outburst against the hugely controversial ordinance that aims to protect lawmakers from immediate disqualification despite conviction in criminal cases.

But his remarks on the ordinance, being brought in by his own party-led UPA government, seems to have prevented a disaster from taking place.

The young Gandhi's sudden and unscheduled appearance at the Press Club of India on Friday afternoon, where he termed the ordinance as "complete nonsense, which should be torn up and thrown away", may have left his party and the government in a state of shock.

Besides, of course, being seen as a blow to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But the remarks though dramatically delivered, belatedly reflected the popular mood in the country against the criminalisation of politics.

His views have left scope for several interpretations by political commentators, including whether the prime minister should reconsider his continuation in office, given the indictment by the Congress scion, who later tried to reach out to Singh, but remained firm in his views that the ordinance was uncalled for.

It could also work to the political advantage of the BJP which can now say, 'we told you so'.

This could well have been a clever move to save the government from the ultimate embarrassment of President Pranab Mukherjee returning the ordinance to the Cabinet for reconsideration, since he was not convinced on the need for such a step, particularly when a Bill to amend the election law was pending in Parliament.

Gandhi's comments, a day after senior BJP leaders met the president to register their protest against the Cabinet's decision to approve the ordinance for reversing the July 10 Supreme Court verdict, is also being seen as a tactical move to deny the BJP the credit for scuttling an improper move.

But I am not sure that this will really work to the Congress's advantage.

Not only was the Cabinet decision a clear reflection of the government disregarding the popular mood in the country against corruption and criminalisation of politics, it would have resulted in the further alienation of the common man from the political process, had it been implemented.

That would hardly be to the advantage of the ruling coalition.

The Cabinet's decision also posed the first major challenge to the president since he moved to Raisina Hill in July last year. All eyes were on him, eagerly waiting to see whether he would return the ordinance or sign it, and history would have judged him on the basis of this decision.

As for the Congress, it can look at the bright side of things: Rahul Gandhi, at least by jumping into the fray, has made the president's task easier.  Even if that hadn't happened, Mukherjee would have had precedents to take a cue from.

There have been several instances in the past of presidents refusing to endorse Cabinet recommendations which they were not convinced about.

The Election Commission of India has been pushing mightily to clean up the electoral process and its efforts have been largely appreciated. I feel the government too could have utilised the July 10 SC judgment for an effective legislation on the decriminalisation of politics. But in its haste to gain political mileage, it seems to have shot itself in the foot.

Data collected by the Association for Democratic Reforms shows 163 of the 543 Lok Sabha MPs, meaning one in three MPs, have criminal cases registered against them. Of 4,032 MLAs across the country, 1,245 of them (31%) have criminal cases pending against them.

These staggering numbers explain the fear among the political parties about the SC judgment.

The developments during the last four months, beginning with the Central Information Commission's June 3 order, which stated that political parties come within the ambit of the Right to Information law and should provide information to citizens, followed by a series of SC judgments questioning the announcement of sops in election manifestoes to disallowing convicts from contesting elections have brought the issue of transparency in public life to the centrestage.

The reaction and approach of the political class as a whole, was rather disappointing and reflected a deep disconnect between its views and those of the general public. The BJP and Rahul Gandhi, over the last three days appear to have made amends, which is a sign that gives hope for clean politics in the country.

The government's Bill pending in the Rajya Sabha and the ordinance, both, have failed to address the basic objection raised by the SC that Parliament did not have the power to include a clause in the Representation of the People Act to protect convicted MPs/MLAs, which runs contrary to the Constitution that does not discriminate between the common man and elected representatives. It is in the country's interest that the entire issue is now revisited at an appropriate time and not when political temperatures are running so high.

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