Sonia tells PM his position is not being undermined but ordinance may be put on hold

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s criticism of the government on Friday effectively put the controversial ordinance on convicted legislators on hold: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, away in the United States on a bilateral visit, was forced to issue a statement from Washington.

But with the attack sending confused signals through the Congress on the position of the Prime Minister, party president Sonia Gandhi, government sources said, reassured the Prime Minister on the telephone, saying there was no intention to undermine his position.

Earlier in the day, the Congress and the UPA government were caught completely off-guard when Mr. Gandhi “dropped in” at a Meet-the-Press programme addressed by party general secretary Ajay Maken, only to denounce the ordinance cleared by the Union cabinet on Tuesday — and on which President Pranab Mukherjee had sought a government briefing on Thursday evening.

With this outburst coming in the wake of Mr. Mukherjee having made his discomfort with the ordinance known to Law Minister Kapil Sibal and Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde — when they met him for well over an hour at Rashtrapati Bhawan on Thursday — Congress sources said the fate of the ordinance now appears to be sealed.

For both the party and the government, nothing could have been more embarrassing than the Congress vice president’s bombshell minutes after Mr. Maken had defended the ordinance. Worse, virtually at the same moment, at another venue, unaware of the drama unfolding at the Press Club of India (PCI), Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Manish Tewari and Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office V. Narayanswamy, too, were explaining the need for the ordinance.

Earlier, minutes after Mr. Maken began to speak, he received a phone call from Mr. Gandhi, who asked whether he could join him at the PCI.

In the less than 10 minutes Mr. Gandhi was there, he proceeded to give what he repeatedly described as his “personal opinion.” The ordinance, he said, was “complete nonsense” and it “should be torn up and thrown away.” He said the “arguments” made in his own party in favour of the ordinance were that there were “political considerations,” arguments that he said were being made in all other parties. “It is time to stop this nonsense, political parties, mine and all others,” Mr. Gandhi said as he rolled up his sleeves, “if we want to fight corruption, we can’t continue making these small compromises. Because if we make these small compromises, then we compromise everywhere.”

As he got up to leave, members of a suddenly galvanised press wanted to know whether Mr. Gandhi’s views had been shaped by the flak the ordinance was getting from the Opposition. He returned to his seat to say: “I’m not interested in the opposition, I am interested in what the Congress party is doing and what our government is doing.” And then came the punchline: “I personally feel what my government has done is wrong,” before he made a dramatic exit.

Mr. Maken retracted all that he had said earlier in the press meet to declaim: “Rahul’s view is that of the Congress party.”

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