New Delhi: Forced into a corner after a public censure by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, the cabinet, presided over by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Wednesday evening withdrew the controversial ordinance and the bill that sought to save convicted lawmakers from disqualification.
A day after the prime minister indicated that the ordinance could be taken back, the cabinet met for just 20 minutes at his official residence to take the decision, brushing aside the disapproval of some Congress allies.
A visibly hassled Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari, who was among the ministers who had earlier stoutly defended the ordinance, told the media: “The decision of the cabinet to withdraw the ordinance and the bill was unanimous.”
He insisted that the cabinet U-turn did not mean that Manmohan Singh’s authority had been undermined by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice president who chose to publicly denounce the ordinance, that too when the prime minister was abroad.
BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was quick to condemn the Congress-led UPA government.
“The government does not know the pulse of the nation or they would not have brought an ordinance to shield convicted politicians,” he said at an event here.
The writing on the wall was clear since Gandhi’s Sep 27 dramatic outburst that the ordinance was “complete nonsense” and should be “torn up and thrown away”.
The ordinance, now with President Pranab Mukherjee, sought to overrule a Supreme Court ruling that favoured the disqualification of convicted MPs and state legislators.
“Democracy is not a monolithic authoritarian system of government,” Tewari said. “We respect the diversity of views, and there was a view which was articulated by Rahul Gandhi.”
He said Gandhi’s criticism was possibly based on a “wider feedback”.
“Under those circumstances, the (earlier) cabinet decision was reconsidered and it was decided that we would withdraw both the bill and the ordinance.
“It demonstrates that you have a government which is not authoritarian in nature.” The bill would be taken back by parliament “at an appropriate time”.
Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar did not look too happy after the cabinet meeting.
“We (NCP) have communicated our views. What I said was said in complete secrecy. I made my views clear,” the agriculture minister told reporters.
National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah too was blunt: “It was a cabinet decision then, it is a cabinet decision now… I am not upset, but I am not happy.”
According to informed sources, the allies were unhappy that the government wanted to axe the bill also.
They said Pawar and Abdullah expressed reservations over the manner Rahul Gandhi trashed the ordinance and the way the cabinet surrendered.
The road to the ordinance’s burial began early in the morning when Gandhi called on the prime minister to explain his criticism of the ordinance.
Hours later, the Congress core group, including party president Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and other senior leaders, who had last week cleared the ordinance, discussed its likely withdrawal.
Shortly thereafter, the prime minister met President Mukherjee, before the latter began a week-long trip to Turkey and Belgium.
The president, who has not yet given assent to the ordinance passed by the cabinet Sep 24, had sought clarification from two ministers.
Rahul Gandhi’s criticism triggered a political storm, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) saying the prime minister must resign as his authority had come under question. Manmohan Singh has ruled out stepping down.
BJP president Rajnath Singh said the ordinance withdrawal was “better late than never” for the country. The BJP claimed it was its pressure that forced the change of mind.
On July 10, the Supreme Court held as unconstitutional Sector 8(4) of the Representative of People Act and said an MP or state legislator must be immediately disqualified if convicted by a court in a criminal offence with a jail sentence of two years or more.
The UPA government’s desperation to pass the ordinance was widely seen as an attempt to save Congress MP Rasheed Masood, who was Tuesday jailed for four years, and ally and RJD leader Lalu Prasad, who has been convicted in the fodder scam. His jail term will be announced Thursday.
Masood, a Rajya Sabha member, became the first politician to lose his seat in line with the Supreme Court ruling.