In a controversial move, the cabinet on Tuesday approved an ordinance to reverse the Supreme Court judgment mandating the immediate disqualification of lawmakers convicted for a criminal offence punishable with a jail term of more than two years.
The ordinance, set to be signed into law by the President within a couple of days, will save veteran Congress Rajya Sabha MP Rashid Masood from losing his seat for being convicted in a corruption case by a city court.
It will also come as a godsend to former railways minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief, Lalu Prasad, in case the verdict in a fodder scam case on September 30 goes against him. Lalu's party supports the ruling Congress-led government from the outside.
The fact that the government was likely to take the ordinance route was reported exclusively by HT on Monday.
The Supreme Court verdict had been considered a milestone in checking the criminalisation of Indian politics, but politicians across the board were keen to see it watered down or scuttled. As many as 163 MPs in the Lok Sabha -- nearly a third of the total strength -- face criminal charges, though none have been convicted.
The government has decided to implement the ordinance from July 10, the date of the Supreme Court verdict, effectively cancelling out the judgement altogether. Its move comes less than three weeks after the apex court had dismissed a government petition seeking a review.
"This has dealt a destructive blow to democracy," said Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms.
"The Supreme Court judgement was a major positive step and undoing it is a disservice to the country."
The decision to take the ordinance route -- also used in case of the Food Bill -- came in for heavy criticism from the Opposition because a bill to this effect is waiting for Parliament to take it up when the Winter session begins in November.
"The government's hurry in getting an ordinance has got to be explained....The BJP will oppose such a step. The government should wait for the Standing Committee's recommendation," said BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman. Law minister Kapil Sibal referred the bill to a standing committee on Tuesday.
The ordinance was included in the cabinet meeting agenda at the last minute, ostensibly because PM Manmohan Singh flies to New York on Wednesday to return only on October 1, the day Masood is due to be sentenced, and a day after Lalu's fate is decided. The maximum penalty for the offences they are accused of is seven years in jail.
It allows convicted MPs or MLAs to keep their seats if their appeal has been admitted by a higher court within 90 days and the conviction or sentence stayed. They will, however, not be allowed to vote nor will they get any salary or allowance until the appeal is finally decided.
This privilege will only be limited to their existing tenures and convicted lawmakers will not be allowed to contest again for a period of six years unless they are acquitted by the court.
Though a bill to negate the July 10 Supreme Court verdict by amending the election law was introduced in the Rajya Sabha during the recently concluded Monsoon session, it could not be taken up due to some differences over the degree of relaxation for convicted lawmakers.
The government justified its ordinance move, despite the pending bill in the Parliament, saying it has not made any changes to the original legislation, but merely expedited it.
The ordinance will have to be ratified by both Houses of Parliament within six weeks of the commencement of the next session of Parliament.