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Date: Mar 26, 2006 11:30 PM
Sonia: run away lady
Contrary to the assertions of her spin doctors, this is actually the fourth time Ms. Sonia Gandhi has run away from an uncomfortable situation in her life in India. The first was in 1977 when her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi lost to the Janata conglomerate. Panicked at a possible post-Mussolini scenario in this land, Sonia Gandhi dragged her pilot husband and two children to the Italian Embassy for refuge; newspaper pictures of her sour countenance remain etched in my memory. Sonia returned home very reluctantly after the entire Gandhi family persuaded her to see reason. No doubt her countrymen (she was still an Italian national) also advised her that Indians were not vindictive and her personal safety was not in danger.
The second time the lady fled a difficult situation was in 1999 when, after ruthlessly ousting the then Congress president Sitaram Kesri, she found Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma questioning her authority, particularly her desire to project herself as candidate for the Prime Minister's office. Rather than answer the questions raised, the lady quit in a sulk and her lieutenants then hustled up support for her, roughing up possible dissidents in the Working Committee, and organizing a bogus AICC meeting to endorse her coup.
The third time - which her media bards seek to project as the first time - was in May 2004 when President APJ Abdul Kalam gently advised her not to press her claim to be sworn in, owing to certain ambiguities in the Citizenship Act. At that time, she had procured letters of support from slavish UPA allies and supporting parties, and announced to a televised press conference that normally the leader of the majority alliance was sworn-in as Prime Minister. But this land is Bharat Mata, and somewhere an ageless Vikramaditya decided whom it would just not tolerate to sit upon its throne. Doubtless to her own surprise, Sonia Gandhi had to make a virtue of necessity. A televised renunciation drama was enacted, and Dr. Manmohan Singh was soon in the saddle.
Now, for the fourth time, Sonia Gandhi has run away from a thorny situation of her own making. Even friendly media analysts find it difficult to support the surreptitious manner in which both Houses of Parliament were adjourned sine die on Wednesday, when an all-party meeting had decided on the recess and resumption of the budget session. This, combined with a news leak about a proposed ordinance to protect the UPA chairperson from certain disqualification from the Lok Sabha, had former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee rushing with a protest delegation to President Kalam.
This put the spotlight uncomfortably upon Ms. Gandhi, because many of her actions as UPA and National Advisory Council chairperson are questionable. Ms. Gandhi has a propensity to settle scores with those who have incurred her personal wrath, even if they are not direct political foes, and this has landed her in her present predicament. The genesis of the present crisis lies in her soured relations with the family of megastar Amitabh Bachchan, which came into the open when the latters' wife, Jaya, made an oblique reference to the fact that no one defended her husband when incorrect insinuations were made about his involvement in the Bofors payoff scandal, the shadow of which falls squarely on Ms. Gandhi and her close friends.
Mrs. Jaya Bachchan later entered the Rajya Sabha as a member of the Samajwadi Party, with which Ms. Gandhi has a running dispute. Thereafter, a few things happened in quick succession. Mrs. Bachchan's membership of the Rajya Sabha was terminated on the ground that she held an "office of profit" as chairperson of the UP Film Development Council; a gleeful Congress said it would gun for SP ideological supremo, Dr. Amar Singh. Superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who was invited to inaugurate the international film festival in Congress-ruled Goa last year, was dis-invited from the function. He was also served a gigantic income tax notice while battling for his life in a Mumbai hospital.
But the humiliation of Mrs. Jaya Bachchan boomeranged when non-Congress parties decided to hit back. Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee became vulnerable as the Trinamool Congress complained about his chairmanship of the Sriniketan-Shantiniketan Development Corporation in West Bengal. Several MPs are equally vulnerable on this count, which jurists concede is a grey area of the constitution.
But Sonia Gandhi has wielded real power of patronage as chairperson of the National Advisory Council, with Cabinet rank, and owes the nation an explanation. Her hand was seen in the scandalous drama which saw the Italian Ottavio Quattrochi making off with the Bofors kickback payments. When the matter became public, she left it to the hapless Prime Minister and others to protect her from the flak.
Since the UPA came to power, Ms. Gandhi has announced Government largesse to victims of tragedies and natural disasters, such as the victims of a fire in a Tamil Nadu school and the Tsunami victims in Tamil Nadu and Port Blair. In fact, she has a penchant for upstaging the Prime Minister and other competent authorities by reaching tragedy spots first and announcing government relief. More recently, after the public outcry against verdict in the Jessica Lall case, she directed Home Minister Shivraj Patil to amend the Criminal Procedure Code suitably to protect witnesses in criminal cases.
Since the budget for her 'recommendatory' office of NAC chairperson comes out of Government funds, there is little doubt that Ms. Gandhi draws benefits from the public exchequer for all her activities, and thus holds an 'office of profit', that too, one which appears to have little constitutional justification. Thus, when the chips were down, she was actually the most vulnerable of those being targetted for disqualification by respective political rivals.
Her resignation should not prevent the Election Commission from deciding the issue of the legality of her presence in the Lok Sabha on merits, as in the case of Mrs. Jaya Bachchan. This means the EC must adjudicate if Ms. Gandhi's interventions in the House, like those of Mrs. Bachchan, must be expunged, and her salary and emoluments returned to Parliament. And before Ms. Gandhi returns to the NAC, presuming it is exempted from the definition of 'office of profit,' there must be a public debate on the relevance of that office, its powers and privileges, and budgetary support.