Keeping whose counsel?
After accepting his nomination to Rajya Sabha, film maker Shyam Benegal received a telephone call from North Block one day. Home secretary VK Duggal was on the line, seeking to know whether he held any office of profit. The query flummoxed the creator of ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’ and memorable avant-garde films, until the bureaucrat explained that it related to offices created and funded by government. Duggal heaved a sigh of relief as Benegal held no other position except on the boards of some private companies. “But can I sign a contract that I am planning with Doordarshan?” asked the film maker. The senior official thought it wasn’t a good idea; Benegal dropped the proposal.
Ironically, the solicitous advice tendered to the film maker in the backdrop of Jaya Bachchan’s impending disqualification wasn’t made available to UPA head Sonia Gandhi when the government set up the National Advisory Council (NAC) and appointed her its chairperson with Cabinet rank. In fact, it didn’t seem forthcoming even when the Jaya controversy started building up and the Samajwadi Party began pointing fingers at Sonia for chairing the NAC and other foundations.
Two key ministries — Home and Law — bungled in not doing their homework to make the appointment constitutionally and legally sound so that it did not attract disqualification. In a purely political sense, it was a case of the protectors leaving their Z-plus category protectee unguarded.
In fact, a long trail of ad hoc decisions is perhaps responsible for the creation of the mess that threatened to drag Sonia in until the Congress chief, in keeping with her record of taking high moral positions, chose to quit from Parliament and the NAC chair.
It all began on May 31, 2004, when the Cabinet Secretariat issued an order setting up the NAC and conferring on Sonia the rank and status of a Union Cabinet minister. There was no advice given to her whether she should draw the salary of a minister (which she actually did), or that of an MP (which she did not). Also, the order, which billed the NAC as a recommendatory body, opened up to legal interpretation what it meant when it said that the Council would “monitor” the implementation of the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme.
Equally inexplicable was the fact that the ministries of law and home — which, in Benegal’s case, seemed to run the comb of experience on a head gone bald — did not seem to stir while the Jaya case was brewing. It is only when the Opposition raised its pitch that it reacted — and it did so in panic.
The government began the exercise of containing the damage around March 15-16, virtually on the eve of Jaya’s disqualification as a Rajya Sabha member on March 17 for holding an office of profit as chairperson of the UP Film Development Council. Conscious of the glaring loopholes, the law ministry began working on the contours of a Bill amending the existing Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification ) Act 1959 to augment the list of offices exempted from being treated as those involving profit.
As law minister, HR Bhardwaj informally conveyed the proposal to leaders of other parties, including the BJP and SP, on what he termed the PM’s authority, the matter reportedly wasn’t discussed in-depth within the Congress. The party’s opinion wasn’t even sought about the possibility of extending the House by a couple of days after March 22 to ensure the Bill’s passage — a proposal that may perhaps have got the support of the SP, the Left and even the BJP, which later rejected the idea of an ordinance.
Things went out of hand after Bhardwaj approached BJP’s Sushma Swaraj for a list of her party’s MPs holding offices of profit that could be woven into the Act. As it later turned out, the BJP kept its counsel, giving the minister a rope long enough to try and hang his party boss with it. For his part, SP’s Amar Singh sent a list of three offices, including those held by him, Jaya Bachchan (for which she had been disqualified) and Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Anuradha Chaudhary.
As the Budget session’s pre-recess closure came nearer, officials of the ministries of law, home and parliamentary affairs were, in an obvious change of strategy to secure a quick-fire relief, called on March 19 to hammer out a draft ordinance. The leakage of this information to an English language daily emboldened the Opposition to draw out the knives.
In response, the government, instead of explaining the objective behind the armour of an ordinance, which MPs across party lines could have worn, lost precious time to let the Opposition seize the initiative. Its recommendation for a sine die adjournment of Parliament only gave credence to the NDA’s charge that Parliament and Constitution were being subverted to protect an individual, namely Sonia.
For all practical purposes, the BJP and TDP-SP combine’s gameplan was to paint the Congress chief in a corner, alleging a repeat of Indira Gandhi’s actions when she was dispossessed of her House membership by an Allahabad High Court judgment in the 1970s.
At this stage, Sonia assumed control, summoning top party leaders to 10 Janpath for a belated stocktaking meet. Making known her deep displeasure and anxiety, she reportedly raised many questions. Among them: Why the NAC chairperson’s office was not placed on the exempt list before she took over? Among those she addressed was the law minister.
At that late stage, her only choice was to opt out of the mess. That wasn’t possible if the government either put off the ordinance or brought it up. In the first case, she would have been in the line of the Chief Election Commissioner’s fire, and in the second, that of her political adversaries.
In arriving at the decision to quit on March 23, the Congress president did not consult any of her colleagues. All she did was to inform the PM and some UPA allies before going public before a hurriedly-invited media.
With Rahul Gandhi watching discreetly from a distance, she yielded an inch to gain a mile in public perception. In a way, they looked a lonely twosome in a crowd of party colleagues who could have served them and the Congress better.