The Constitution defines how politics should be conducted. The system determines how politics is actually run. The Constitution was framed by its founding fathers. The system is run by unprincipled politicians. Our system allowed too many political excesses. Now the sins of the past are catching up. Politics is in turmoil. There is uncertainty in the air. Let's begin with the Office of Profit issue.
The Office of Profit issue was raised by a Congress Party member. It nailed Mrs. Jaya Bachchan. She had to quit the Rajya Sabha for heading an institute deemed to be office of profit. Congressmen were gleeful. Its Left partners watched with smug satisfaction. Unfortunately for them, they hadn't done their homework. Others got into the act. Complaints against their own MPs occupying offices of profit began to pile up. The list is growing. But already the President has forwarded forty petitions to the Election Commission. The latter is processing these cases. Eighteen among the 40 belong to Left parties. Ten among the 18 belong to CPI (M). Lok Sabha Speaker, Mr Somnath Chatterjee, is one of them.
Subsequently the Office of Profit Act appeared in a new light. The government contemplated an immediate ordinance to prevent its fallout even while parliament was in session. Eventually it passed a Bill exempting honorable members who came under purview of this law. Alas, the President, bitten once by the Bihar assembly dissolution, became twice shy. He returned the Bill to parliament for reconsideration. It can be taken up only in parliament's next session.
Meanwhile investigations by the Election Commission in cases against the 40 MPs are proceeding apace. It is entirely possible therefore that the EC could unseat the MPs before parliament can discuss the Bill and send it back to the President for signing. The prospect of this happening seems to have rattled the Left. Mr. Prakash Karat chided the EC for proceeding with its investigation before parliament has met. He sternly advised the EC not to embroil itself in parliamentary affairs. Clearly, stress has taken toll of Mr. Karat's nerves. Otherwise, why would he put the cart before the horse? It is parliament which is embroiling itself in affairs of the EC and not the other way around. The EC was seized of the matter before parliament decided to amend the law related to Office of Profit. With approving nods from UPA allies it unseated Mrs. Bachchan from her membership of the House. How could the EC adopt a different yardstick and stall investigation of the 40 MPs without severely eroding its own credibility?
It is not only the Election Commission which attracted flack. Even the President is being subjected to murmurs of protest for discharging his duty by sending the Bill back for consideration. What will he do if the Bill is immediately returned by parliament without any amendment? That this is being considered has already been indicated by the Law Minister. Suddenly, the President's powers are being closely scrutinized. Legal experts have solemnly written newspaper articles defining the limitations in the President's powers. The circumstances however could render irrelevant in this crisis the President's role. Events may move too fast. If ten by-elections for seats vacated by CPI (M) MPs occupying offices of profit are to be fought, a mid-term general election may not appear too arduous for that party. It is in this fluid political situation that the fuel price issue erupted as a godsend for the UPA.
Under compulsion of rising global oil prices the PM was constrained to raise the price of fuel. Possibly, this could have been avoided if the government's fiscal policies and public expenditure had been more prudent in the past. But right now the government has no choice. It is involved in a fire-fighting exercise. If fuel prices are not raised the public sector oil companies could go bankrupt. Political parties of both the Left and the Right know this. But they are playing politics. Consider the BJP's agitation in this context: crippled by infighting and smeared with scandal the fuel price hike provides it with the ideal issue to divert attention and consolidate its cadres. For the UPA's partners it seems a different story.
Apparently, nothing less than a change of guard within the present government would suffice. In other words Dr Manmohan Singh must go. This is where the complexities of Byzantine intrigue cause confusion. To be fair the Left has consistently opposed the PM. Whether it was Iran, the Indo-US nuclear deal or the pace and direction of economic reforms, Left leaders never softened their criticism of the PM. Forget the Left's inconsistencies in accepting from Kolkata courtesy Mr. Bhatacharjee what it rejected from New Delhi courtesy the PM. That's the way of power politics. Right?
It is the role of the Congress and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi which is the real puzzle. That several disgruntled senior leaders of the Congress wooed the Left while habitually prostrating themselves before Mrs. Gandhi was known. That some among them coveted the PM's post was also known. Indeed, one has considerably strengthened his claim on support from the Left by signing India's first ever Memorandum of Understanding with China's Peoples' Liberation Army! But Mrs. Gandhi thus far had successfully struck a balance by humoring them as well as the Left without abandoning Dr Manmohan Singh. Does that situation still hold? Or is Mrs. Gandhi reconciled to replacing the PM?
The answer to that puzzle may lie in the Congress party's motive behind its stated opposition to the cabinet decision to hike fuel prices. According to reports Mrs. Gandhi sought a reduction of Re 1 in the price of petrol to placate the Left as well as to steal its thunder. Her action possibly gives her the image of a caring custodian ofaam admi. However when she met the PM in the glare of the media to propose petrol price reduction, the PM firmly scotched the idea. What remains unclear is whether this was stage-managed drama at which Mrs. Gandhi has shown herself to be unusually adept, or whether this was actual confrontation. If it was a genuine standoff between the PM and the lady, someone has to blink. So who will blink first? Will the PM within a week relent and accept the petrol price reduction? Or will Mrs. Gandhi relent and abandon the Left as well as all the tail-wagging poodles within the Congress?
The coming days should tell us. At the least, there could be someone with plenty of egg on face. At most, there could be a change of PM within the UPA.