The giant Rahul Gandhi jigsaw puzzle
By Kanchan Gupta on September 28, 2013
More than 24 hours after Congress vice-president and Nehru Dynasty scion Rahul Gandhi’s bizarre outburst against the Congress-led UPA Government that has left Prime Minister Manmohan Singh denuded of whatever little dignity he still commanded, none knows for sure what prompted the public spectacle at the Press Club of India in New Delhi.
Congress media cell head Ajay Maken, who is never known to have so much as whispered against the party line, had organised a ‘Meet the Press’ event at the Press Club on Friday to explain, among other things, the Congress’s position on the controversial Ordinance which, if signed by President Pranab Mukherjee, would undo the Supreme Court’s bar on convicted politicians from holding elected office.
First, some background. The Congress and its allies in the UPA had sought to undo the Supreme Court’s judgement through a Bill which was introduced during the monsoon session of Parliament. The Bill ran into heavy weather with the Opposition, especially the BJP, refusing to allow its passage without full scrutiny. The Government conceded this demand and the Bill was sent to the relevant Standing Committee.
Yet, within days of the monsoon session coming to an end, Congress began pushing for an Ordinance to short-circuit the legislative process. Accordingly, the issue was discussed and the proposal cleared at a meeting of the Congress Core Committee chaired by party president Sonia Gandhi. Subsequently, the Cabinet approved the draft of the Ordinance, which was a mere formality, and it was sent to Rashtrapati Bhavan for the President’s signature.
Two things happened for which neither the Congress nor the Government was quite prepared. First, Pranab Mukherjee did not show the expected promptness in signing the Ordinance. Second, the BJP petitioned the President not to sign what was a patently unconstitutional order.
Meanwhile, Manmohan Singh left for America for the annual India-US bilateral meeting to be followed by his meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Presumably he was under the impression that Pranab Mukherjee would sign the Ordinance after going through the motions of studying its implications. He clearly got it wrong.
On Thursday Pranab Mukherjee called in Kapil Sibal and Kamal Nath to explain to him the compulsions for the Ordinance and why the unseemly hurry. Both of them would have told him what Congress spokespersons, Ministers and party office-bearers have been saying in defence of the Ordinance: It does not subvert the Supreme Court judgement but merely seeks to align the existing law with the views of the court. In fact, Sibal and his party colleagues had tauntingly asked BJP leaders and others in the Opposition whether they had read the Supreme Court’s judgement.
After their meeting with Pranab Mukherjee, Kapil Sibal and Kamal Nath are believed to have briefed Sonia Gandhi about the President’s concerns. Sonia Gandhi showed no inclination of backing off or wanting to rethink options.
To take on the Opposition and publicise its stand, the Congress decided to hold a series of high profile Press conferences in Delhi. Information & Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari and Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office V Narayanasamy addressed a formal Press Conference at the PIB, explaining the nuances of the judgement and the Ordinance. A short distance from Shastri Bhavan, Ajay Maken did the same, firmly asserting the party and Government line.
Within minutes, the situation changed, and dramatically so. Rahul Gandhi made an unannounced appearance at the Press Club and denounced the Ordinance as “complete nonsense” which should be “torn and thrown away” – repeating the words lest anybody had misheard him. Having said that, he left the Press Club. A stunned Ajay Maken immediately swung around and reiterated the Rahul Gandhi line, abandoning the party and Government line.
At Shastri Bhavan, the Ministers holding forth on the merits of the Ordinance didn’t even know that Rahul Gandhi had trashed the Ordinance – and along with it, the Prime Minister’s dignity and the Cabinet’s authority – in so rude a manner. Asked for their comments, they understandably had no cogent answer.
Late Friday evening media was told that Rahul Gandhi had written to Manmohan Singh after his outburst earlier in the day, explaining that his objection to the Ordinance was his ‘own conviction’ and that he had the “highest respect for the Prime Minister”. Sonia Gandhi called Manmohan Singh to reaffirm her ‘faith’ in him and the party’s support for him.
At best it was a damage limitation exercise by the mother-son owners of the Congress. At worst, it was mocking at a person who is so craven and effete that he would revel in such vacuous platitudes. Offensive as it may sound the description of Manmohan Singh as a poodle of the Nehru Dynasty comes to mind: Pat him on the back and he will gladly wag his tail, never mind how brutally he may have been beaten and abused by his keepers a short while ago.
In any other democracy the Prime Minister would have taken the first flight and returned home, put in his papers and vacated official lodgings. Not so Manmohan Singh. He has merely issued a statement that he had taken note of Rahul Gandhi’s objection and the Cabinet would reconsider the issue once he returned from his junket.
That apart, some questions that come to mind need to be flagged. Was Rahul Gandhi’s outburst a command performance, the command being that of his mother Sonia Gandhi? If yes, what’s their game-plan? To insulate the Dynasty from the Government’s tattered legacy by isolating Manmohan Singh? Or did Rahul Gandhi act on his own, decided to do what is called ‘teri aisi-ki-taisi’ in this part of India, and emerge a hero echoing popular anger?
Either way, why would Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, either together or the latter alone, want to isolate senior Ministers, who are now seething with rage, along with Manmohan Singh? Was it felt that this grandstanding was needed to get Rahul Gandhi back into orbit and present him as a knight in shining armour riding a white horse? Was it planned as a ‘game-changer’ moment like his laughable Lokpal speech in the Lok Sabha?
It’s a jigsaw puzzle. Most of the pieces have fallen into place but some just refuse to fit in. Sonia Gandhi is far too astute not to have thought such a strategy through and spotted its flaws. If Rahul Gandhi realises, as he admits in his letter to Manmohan Singh, that what he feels about the Ordinance is “not in harmony with the Cabinet decision and the Core Group’s view” and that it will be “exploited by our political opponents”, surely that wisdom would not have escaped his mother?
Or is this Sonia Gandhi’s “I have the numbers” moment when during the turbulent summer of 1999 she left for Rashtrapati Bhavan and then stopped short of its imposing gates, realising that she, after all did not have the numbers?