Questions over advisability & validity of ordinance to protect convicted lawmakers cited as reasons

Five days after Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi publicly censured the government, the Union Cabinet, at a brisk 20-minute meeting on Wednesday evening, decided to withdraw the controversial ordinance on convicted lawmakers, as well as the Bill that sought to amend the Representation of the People Act on which it was based.

Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting Manish Tiwari described the cabinet decision as “unanimous”, but it was taken only after Union agriculture minister and Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, government sources said, read his colleagues a homily. Such a dramatic U-turn was embarrassing for the government, he said, because it showed that the ordinance was rushed through without careful thought. He also underscored the fact that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are institutions that cannot afford to be undermined.

The government had walked into an opposition trap, Mr. Pawar said, referring to the fact that the government had initially wished to amend Articles 101 and 102 of the Constitution (that relate to vacancy of seats and disqualification of members) along with the proposed changes in the Representation of People Act, so that the two would be in sync. But the BJP, while agreeing to the changes in the RPA Act, had refused to cooperate on amending the Constitution. Later, as Union parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath has publicly said, the BJP reneged even on this. And the government went along with the Bill and the ordinance as it was keen to overturn the July 10 Supreme Court ruling that had said that convicted lawmakers would face immediate disqualification.

Indeed, it is learnt that on Wednesday, shortly before the Union cabinet met, Attorney General (AG) Goolam Vahanvati met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and stressed that without the constitutional amendments, the ordinance could be challenged in court. The government statement announcing the withdrawal of the ordinance hinted at this: “Having regard to various concerns, which have been expressed in relation to the validity and advisability of the proposed Ordinance seeking to amend the Representation of People's Act,” it said “the Cabinet has decided to withdraw the proposal for promulgating the Ordinance as well as the Bill.”

Congress sources said that after the Union cabinet had cleared the ordinance on September 24, Mr. Gandhi had sought the opinion of a government legal officer who had pointed out the pitfall mentioned above. It is also learnt that President Pranab Mukherjee, too, had consulted legal experts who had given him the identical view — after which he had called Union Law Minister Kapil Sibal and Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde for a briefing on September 26. Wednesday evening’s decision came at the end of a long day for the Prime Minister: Mr Gandhi met him at his 7, Race Course residence to express his regret for the timing and language of his public censure, but reiterated his staunch opposition to the order. After the 25-minute meeting with Mr. Gandhi, the Prime Minister called on the President to inform him of the government’s decision to rescind the ordinance.

The Congress Core Group — of which both the Prime Minister and Congress President Sonia Gandhi are members — too met on Wednesday morning on the issue. The Prime Minister called up the leaders of the UPA’s allied parties — the NCP’s Sharad Pawar, the RLD’s Ajit Singh and the National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah — ahead of the cabinet meeting. He told them of his intention of withdrawing the ordinance.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tewari sought to give a positive spin. “Yes, there was a view articulated by Rahul Gandhi and possibly it was based on the widest possible feedback… under those circumstances it was decided to take back both the bill and ordinance.”

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