A push is a push is a push
Bugger! just when I had forgotten that fateful day in May 2004 when Sonia Gandhi, the keeper of the flame, the angel of renunciation, the protector of tehzeeb, and the mangler of petty politics, had made that sacrifice, we’re in for another schmaltzfest.
At least that time round, I had started chewing on my pillow when I saw one teary-eyed, trembly-lipped Congress worker after another, come forward to the microphone and announce, Oscar Awards acceptance speech-style, the greatness of Soniaji’s renunciation. I was embarrassed at Congressmen and at the Congress culture that seemed more akin to the Prince of Patiala’s court than to 21st century Indian national party politics. At the same time, I couldn’t help but toss a tall rose stem at the televised image of Sonia — who was silently, graciously accepting the encomia (read: torrents of schmaltz) — for being an unadulterated political genius. If she (understandably) didn’t like being compared to Machiavelli, she definitely had arrived as Kautilya.
Yesterday, Sonia announced her stepping down from the position of Lok Sabha member as well as from the post of chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC). If I hadn’t been awake for the weeks that had preceded yesterday, I would have probably thought the gesture to be Stage II in the Great Renunciation trajectory. Fortunately, I had been awake and had followed the strange and curious incident of Samajwadi Party member Jaya Bachchan being disqualified as Rajya Sabha member on March 17.
Bachchan had violated a rule about MPs not being allowed to hold an ‘office of profit’. A Congressman had filed a petition seeking her disqualification on the grounds that she was also the chairperson of the Uttar Pradesh Film Development Council. Not being a Congresswoman has its disadvantages. For one, Bachchan did not have the recourse of ‘stepping down’ and showing the world which is gilded by thirty pieces of silver, that for her, values meant more than hanging on to Rajya Sabhahood. The President of India, after being recommended by the Election Commission, shrugged his shoulders and told her to leave the House of the Elders. For another, no one in Bachchan’s party — or for that matter in any other party including the naughty, forever-scheming BJP — had the brains to file a petition seeking to disqualify the many other MPs who have positions in ‘offices of profit’, including the magnificent, munificent chairperson of the NAC, um, Sonia Gandhi.
The Constitution states in Article 102, Clause 1: “A person shall be disqualified for being chosen as, and for being, a member of either House of Parliament — a) if he holds any office of profit under the Government of India or the government of any state, other than an office declared by Parliament by law not to disqualify its holder.” Sorry, afsos hai Guddi-ji, ‘Uttar Pradesh Film Development Council’ is the galat jawab.
Sitaram Yechury, a much smarter man than I can ever hope to be, is right when he says that the definition of an ‘office of profit’ falls under a grey area. But what reminds me of an embarrassing incident involving me wearing the wrong shade of grey as winter uniform to school and paying the price for it (suspension, rather than permanent rustication), the Congress had some glass walls of its own to protect from irate dehati stone pelters.
The plan to bring in an ordinance to prevent an array of ‘good’ MPs from being disqualified under the same suddenly ‘activated’ provision that claimed Bachchan’s Rajya Sabha-hood was too jerky, too difficult to explain from the hallowed pulpit. If the BJP and some other parties came up with the colourful Baki sab bahana hai, Sonia ko bachana hai on the floor of the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, it wasn’t just the rhyme that seemed to stick. The ordinance was seeking to amend the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act, 1959, to redefine an ‘office of profit’. If you sniffed around a bit, this amendment amounted to the government turning 62 ‘offices of profit’ into 62 ‘offices of non-profit’ without having to say ‘Hey, presto!’
Out of the lucky 62, I don’t know whether the Uttar Pradesh Film Development Council was to be one. But I’ll eat the trousers that I’m wearing from the bottom-up, the belt included, if the National Advisory Council — a body set up, funded and nurtured by the UPA government — was not on the ‘metamorphosis’ list.
In the light of all these pulleys being cranked and sets being changed to fit the suddenly difficult scene, Sonia Gandhi’s resignation as Lok Sabha member and NAC chairperson seems to any rational person to be a surrender. Riding the moral hobby-horse has its flip side. With the Bachchan episode already done and over with, the Congress suddenly found itself not galloping in soft-focus through the glen but in a no-nonsense rodeo show with Sonia on a wild bronco. The ordinance would have been the equivalent of tying the UPA president tightly on to the wild horse to ensure that she did not actually fall from the kicking-neighing horse. But then Sonia Gandhi, the Buddha of Indian politics, would have fallen from the high horse she had mounted some two years ago. And that wouldn’t have looked good.
So, another ‘renunciation’ it would be. “[The] atmosphere was being built up in the country to give an impression that government and Parliament were being misused for my cause only... This has hurt me greatly,” Sonia stated before stepping down. She also reminded everyone that she had “come to politics and public life not for any personal gains” but to serve the nation.
Frankly, Mr Shankly, no one actually disbelieves her. What I do find a bit hard to believe though is the corresponding insinuation that Jaya Bachchan may have come to politics — unlike Sonia of the Humble Disposition — for personal gains.
If Sonia Gandhi’s 2004 ‘renunciation’ gave her a halo that has stuck to her head more steadfastly than Manmohan Singh’s blue turban, her 2006 ‘resignation’ is the moment when we get to see the swathes of cellotape that keeps that halo in place. By pre-empting any embarrassing ordinance, Sonia may have come across — again — to those willing to be bewitched that she is the moral answer to immoral politics. But renouncing and being pushed to renounce have always been two different activities.
So if Sonia’s expecting me to throw another rose stem at her for political canniness, she ain’t getting one this time. Instead, I’ll sing a song I haven’t heard for a long time: “Meet na mila re manka...” I’ve forgotten the rest.