Yet to recover from Rahul Gandhi’s blistering public rejection of an ordinance to save convicted legislators, the Congress found itself cornered by its allies in the UPA on its flip-flop on the controversial subject. Simultaneously, it tried to lessen the damage done by the party vice-president to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s authority.
Nationalist Congress Party leader Praful Patel was the first voice within the cabinet to criticise Rahul, saying, “The way events have unfolded is very unfortunate. I think the entire matter could have been handled better. It's embarrassing.”
Jammu and Kashmir CM Omar Abdullah of the National Conference, another key ally, said, “All UPA constituents should be taken into confidence and the misunderstandings created publicly need to be set right privately in a closed room.”
Naresh Agarwal of the Samajwadi Party said, “The Congress should understand that if the government’s reputation takes a hit, the country’s reputation is also affected.”
In the Congress, a firefight was on to appease the PM. Sources said that when Congress president Sonia Gandhi called the PM in Washington on Friday, she assured him the entire party was behind him.
Party general secretary Digvijaya Singh tweeted: “Compliment PM for convincing US and others that LeT is a global terror threat. I hope Pakistan will take note of that and act decisively.”
Rahul, too, had expressed his respect for the PM in an email. “I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the manner in which you are providing leadership in extremely difficult circumstances,” he had written.
Congress managers said Rahul’s remarks — that the ordinance passed by cabinet was “complete nonsense” — weren’t directed at the PM but merely reflected public opinion he’d gathered on visits to various states.
Milind Deora, the first union minister to tweet against the ordinance, said Rahul’s act was “healthy for democracy” and there was nothing wrong in accepting and rectifying an error. He added that nobody in the government or party had undermined “the authority of the PM, who all of us have tremendous respect for”.
The BJP, on its part, launched a two–pronged attack: dubbing Singh the “weakest ever” PM while suggesting the Gandhi scion lacks the ability to occupy a responsible office. “Does Rahul Gandhi have even an average understanding of national interest? That Rahul Gandhi whom Congress leaders project as a future PM,” Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
“It shows the PM’s position has been belittled and diminished. It won’t be incorrect to say the PM is in office but not in power anymore,” Arun Jaitley said.
Parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath countered, “The BJP is doing drama. There are situations where there is divergence of views… it is normal and healthy. When the PM comes back he will review the situation.”
The Congress is set to seal the fate of the ordinance at the earliest opportunity. Top sources said a cabinet meeting is likely to be called within three days of Singh’s return, to formally withdraw it.