In Papa Rajiv&’s footsteps ~ Arati R Jerath

There have been Presidents and Presidents. Some have been rubber stamps; others have quietly steered matters of state in the right direction from their perch atop Raisina Hill. The present incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan, Pranab Mukherjee, falls in the second category. As we piece together the events that led to Rahul Gandhi&’s stunning outburst against his government on the controversial ordinance seeking to protect convicted legislators from disqualification, it&’s evident that Mukherjee had a hand in goading the Congress to correct a blatantly wrong decision. It&’s quite a different matter that the party script for damage control went awry as Rahul&’s awkward communication skills made him sound like he was trashing the Prime Minister along with the ordinance.
According to those in the loop, Mukherjee had made it clear to the three ministers he summoned for discussions – law minister Kapil Sibal, home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath – that he was not convinced by their arguments on the ordinance. In fact, after going through records of the all party meetings on the Supreme Court order against convicted legislators and the subsequent discussion in Parliament on the proposed law to overturn the judgment, Mukherjee bluntly told Nath that he found no evidence of a political consensus on the issue as claimed by the government.
He also told the ministers that he would have liked to discuss the matter with the PM, but since Manmohan Singh was out of the country, he had called them instead. He advised Sibal to review the matter with Congress president Sonia Gandhi in light of the questions he had raised. The President was of the view that the ordinance was untenable and would be struck down by the Supreme Court. There cannot be one law for elected legislators and a different one for ordinary citizens, he pointed out.
With Mukherjee virtually saying that he would not sign the ordinance, the government and the Congress had a full blown crisis on its hands. The brainwave to kill two birds with one stone – kill the controversial ordinance and position Rahul on the right side of public opinion – came from within the Gandhi scion&’s inner circle. Only, no one had envisaged that the words would come out all wrong. Yes, Rahul took the wind out of the opposition&’s sails with his strong denunciation of the ordinance as “complete nonsense”. But in the process, he also invited comparison with his father Rajiv Gandhi&’s penchant for heaping public humiliation quite thoughtlessly on institutions and leaders. Ironically, Manmohan Singh was stung by Rajiv as well. He was deputy chairman of the Planning Commission when the late PM ridiculed its members as a “pack of jokers”.
Slice of family history
Rahul Gandhi&’s quick trip to the Press Club to denounce the ordinance also opened a page of family history for him. It turns out that the bungalow housing the favourite watering hole of Delhi journos was once the official residence of Rahul&’s grandfather, Feroze Gandhi, as Lok Sabha MP. The Gandhi scion was taken aback when a Club office bearer escorting him inside revealed this little nugget of information. He stopped in his tracks and looked around with interest. How, he wanted to know. The office bearer said it was allotted to him when he was MP. Feroze was a member of the Lok Sabha from Rare Bareli in UP from 1952 till his death in 1960.
According to senior journalists, he opened his house to the media when those who knew him complained that they had no place to pass time in between Parliament sittings and Press briefings. Since Feroze&’s bungalow was located in the heart of the centre of political activity, he invited journos to drop in whenever they wanted. Feroze himself was a great “addebaaz” (someone who loves talk shops) and he used to regale correspondents with anecdotes and witticisms. After his death, it was decided that his bungalow be turned over to journos to house the Press Club, founded in 1958.
Keeping distance from VK Singh
Former Army chief V K Singh seems to have bitten off more than he can chew with his off-the-cuff interview to a prominent English news channel. National Conference MLAs have given notice for a privilege motion against him for alleging that the Army paid money to J&K politicians. The Supreme Court is believed to be mulling a criminal contempt of court charge against him for criticising its ruling upholding the government&’s stand on his date of birth controversy. And the government is thinking of starting an official inquiry into his claims about the use (or misuse) of Army secret funds.
But more than this, it seems the BJP&’s PM-in-waiting Narendra Modi, who recently welcomed Singh into the party and shared the dais with him at a rally in Rewari, is having second thoughts about flaunting the ex-chief like a trophy. Party circles say that Modi is embarrassed by Singh&’s loose talk, particularly on Kashmir. It gives Pakistan a handle and jeopardises the BJP&’s strong nationalist plank. Modi has apparently advised his party to exclude Singh from future rallies.