After the humiliation heaped on him by Rahul Gandhi and the Opposition, the best course for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to remain in office and assume power as his own man

There were elements of black comedy, singular imprudence and self-righteous humbug in the brash tamasha Rahul Gandhi staged at the Press Club last Friday. He undermined his own Prime Minister, stabbing him in the back on the eve of delicate meetings with Mr. Obama, Mr. Nawaz Sharif and Sheikh Hasina in the United States and brazenly repudiating a cabinet decision to adopt a controversial ordinance staying disqualification of criminally convicted legislators as decreed by the Supreme Court. The decision had also been endorsed by the Party’s “core group” presided over by the party chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, his own mother. Many question the merits of the ordinance but there was and is a time and a place to do so, not when the Prime Minister was representing the country abroad.

Rahul’s crude show

Compounding the folly was the coward’s stratagem of mailing Dr. Manmohan Singh post facto to express deep and abiding admiration of his leadership in difficult times, despite knowing his remarks would be exploited by political opponents. Yet he sought understanding of the strength of his own new found convictions that he never, ever expressed previously despite every opportunity to do so.

The manner in which a carefully staged ploy was sought to be passed off as happenstance was crude and totally disrespectful of the media. Congress spokesperson and ex-Minister Ajay Maken was asked to address the Press Club. On arrival he defended the Ordinance, went out to answer a call on his cell phone and then shortly returned with Rahul Gandhi in tow. The latter then took over, said he had learnt of what was being discussed and gratuitously went on to rubbish the Ordinance as “total nonsense” — a phrase he repeated before walking out smirking, leaving it to an unembarrassed Maken to echo him in denouncing what he had only a while ago defended. The first take, Maken explained, was the government line. But now he was stating the party line, which is what would prevail! The Press Club forum was thus crudely hijacked by design and sheer bad manners.

Having already written to Manmohan stating his opposition to the Ordinance, Rahul did not care to wait for an answer. When it came, this started that the matter would be considered by the cabinet on the Prime Minister’s return.

Bad law

As news of Rahul Gandhi’s firman spread, a lot of Congressmen endorsed the new line like a bunch of Zombies. Public anger at the fraudulent upholding of proven criminal conduct through an Ordinance probably turned the tide, principles be damned. Yet the Ordinance does indeed constitute bad legislation. Lalu Yadav has since been convicted in the 17-year old fodder-scam. The argument that legislators should be treated on a par with the common citizen in all matters does not wash. If MPs and MLAs for ever claim superior status and privileges as the nation’s lawmakers, one must also expect higher standards from them. Coincidentally, the Supreme Court has just upheld the Election Commission’s plea that the right of rejection of electoral candidates should be included in the ballot paper so that legislators are elected by a majority and not merely a plurality of those voting. By this test, many aspirants lacking integrity could be felled by the “Not Any of the Above” process.

There have been calls for Manmohan’s resignation in defence of his honour and the dignity of his office. This is not the only or best course open to him. Returning from New York, after what has surely been a successful and purposeful visit, the Prime Minister could as well decide to stay put but scrap the Ordinance, which has been rightly queried by the President, as an expedient that he admittedly unwisely adopted in deference to party-political pressure against his own better personal judgment. But he can only credibly remain by retaining office and assuming power as his own man without bowing to party managers or anybody else who seeks to dictate from outside.

The New York meetings put Pakistan on notice before the U.N. and Mr. Obama and Mr. Nawaz Sharif himself that Pakistan remains the epicentre of global and cross-border terror. Internationally proclaimed terrorists like Hafiz Saeed and jihadi outfits like the LeT or JuD cannot be officially funded to roam the streets spewing hate and incitement to violence – offences under Pakistani law; the trial of the 26/11 criminals must proceed expeditiously to a conclusion; and Mr. Sharif himself must walk his talk. Until then there can be no substantive talks on other issues. Meanwhile, the two Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) will fashion a mechanism to restore and maintain tranquillity along the LoC. The message was delivered quietly but firmly, without quibbling.

The Prime Minister should reshuffle his cabinet to get rid of incompetents and pretenders, standing firmly on principle, and announce a slew of overdue systemic and structural reforms for which he has been pressing. Let he who dares seek his ouster. Rahul Gandhi has thus far failed to enunciate any semblance of grand strategy or vision on national or international issues of importance, apart from indulging in vague, shallow one-line sloganeering and showmanship. He has not spoken or intervened meaningfully in any crisis and has failed to show any leadership whatsoever unless appearing unshaven is intended to signify an “angry” middle aged messiah whose wisdom will follow, not precede, his anointment.

No witch-hunt

So let not Manmohan desert the field but sound the trumpet for good and decisive governance even as Narendra Modi prances around, skull caps and burqas in hand, as a badge of pseudo-secularism that actually betrays his inability to outlive his odious past. The Prime Minister does not seek another term but could well be the UPA’s best bet to lead the alliance in 2014 by giving face and content to what inclusive “development” should truly mean.

This apart, one of the first things the Prime Minister must do on his return is to take the V.K. Singh matter in hand and deal sternly with a man who has turned out to be a dangerous and dishonest adventurer who has disgraced a proud uniform and sought to imperil the nation. The Supreme Court is contemplating suing him for contempt and the J&K Assembly for rank breach of privilege. Earlier temporising with the man by the government only encouraged rank indiscipline. A speedy, independent judicial inquiry must be announced into the DGMO-headed Board of Officers’ findings delivered six months ago, with instructions to report in two months. That is all the time required. This is not witch-hunting but a matter of high national security.

As for Narendra Modi, his boorish, abusive performance at the Delhi rally speaks for itself. The people will judge.

(B.G. Verghese, a veteran journalist, is at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Visit: www.bgverghese .com)

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