In his resignation letter, senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad launched a scathing attack on Rahul Gandhi and said that “the entire consultative mechanism which existed earlier was demolished by him (Rahul)” after his entry into party affairs in 2013 as vice-president. Saying that under Rahul, a new “coterie of inexperienced sycophants” started running the party, Azad, citing “one of the most glaring examples of this immaturity”, referred to an incident from 2013 when the then party vice-president tore into an ordinance brought in by his party-led UPA government.
In his letter to party president Sonia Gandhi, Azad wrote, “The said ordinance was incubated in the Congress Core Group and subsequently unanimously approved by the Union Cabinet presided over by the Prime Minister of India and duly approved even by the President of India. This childish behaviour completely subverted the authority of the Prime Minister and the Government of India. This one single action more than anything else contributed significantly to the defeat of the UPA Government in 2014 that was at the receiving end of a campaign of calumny and insinuation from a combination of the forces of the right-wing and certain unscrupulous corporate interests.”
In September 2013, the Manmohan Singh-led government had passed an ordinance to negate a Supreme Court order in July that year that would have disqualified convicted MPs and MLAs and robbed them of the protection from disqualification granted previously through the Representation of the People Act, 1951. This was also the period when RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav was facing threats of disqualification if proved guilty in the fodder scam case and Rajya Sabha MP Rashid Masood had already been convicted in a corruption case. The ordinance came under severe criticism from the Opposition, including the BJP and the Left, that accused the government and the Congress of protecting convicted lawmakers.
Amidst all this, on September 27, Rahul made a surprise and dramatic entry at the party’s “Meet-the-Press programme” at the press club in Delhi. In what would be termed a major embarrassment for then prime minister Manmohan Singh and his Cabinet colleagues, Rahul publicly castigated the UPA government, termed the ordinance “complete nonsense” and said it should be “torn and thrown out”.
Speaking at the press conference, Rahul had said, “I am telling you what is happening internally – we need to do this [bring in an ordinance] because of political considerations. Everybody does this. The Congress party does this, the BJP does this, Janata Dal does this, the Samajwadi does this and everybody does this. And there is a time to stop this nonsense,” he said, adding, “I really feel it is about time that political parties, mine and all others, stop making these kind of compromises because if we want to actually fight corruption in this country,whether it is us, the Congress party, or the BJP, we cannot continue making these small compromises… I am interested in what the Congress party is doing, I am interested in what our government is doing and I feel, personally feel,what our government has done as far as this ordinance is concerned is wrong,” Rahul added.
Congress sources told The Indian Express at the time that Rahul was attempting to distance himself from the UPA government’s “perceived omissions and commissions”. With less than a year to go for the 2014 elections and with the government battling a string of corruption allegations such as the alleged 2G scam and AgustaWestland scam, Rahul, they said, hoped his taking the moral high ground would help the party go to the “electorate with a clean image”.
The result, however, was the opposite. The incident, which happened at a time when then PM Manmohan Singh was on an official visit to the US, was seen as a blow to the PM’s authority and a sign that the government and party were pulling in different directions.
Rahul is also reported to have sent a letter to the PM shortly after the incident, saying his comments “had been made on the spur of the moment” but that “he strongly believed in what he had said”.
Rahul’s outburst had come a day after BJP leaders L K Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley met President Pranab Mukherjee and submitted a memorandum asking for the ordinance to be withdrawn. The President had then summoned the law minister,the home minister and the parliamentary affairs minister and asked them what the government planned to do if the Supreme Court struck the ordinance down. The ministers had reportedly come back from the meeting and even decided that the Cabinet should reconsider the ordinance and withdraw it.
Interestingly, hours after the President expressed his reservations on the ordinance, Rahul sent a letter to the PM, who was in Washington. But, he reportedly went ahead with his dramatic press conference without waiting for a reply from Manmohan Singh.
In a statement released just before his meeting with Obama, Manmohan Singh said, “The ordinance cleared by the cabinet pertaining to the Representation of the People Act has been a matter of much public debate. The Congress vice-president has also written to me on the issue and also made a statement. The government is seized of all these developments. The issues raised will be considered on my return to India after due deliberations in the cabinet.”
On October 2, days after Rahul’s outburst, Manmohan Singh met the Congress VP before a meeting of the Congress Core Group, where it was decided that it would be better for the government to withdraw the ordinance.
The next day, the government withdrew the ordinance.