NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s Congress-led government on Wednesday withdrew a decree which would have allowed convicted politicians to run for elections while appeals were pending, demonstrating the authority of party leader Rahul Gandhi.
Gandhi had slammed the measure as “complete nonsense”.
His defiance of the government decision was seen as an attempt to distance himself from an administration that has been dogged for years by corruption scandals, which have stalled legislation and hindered efforts to revive Asia’s third-largest economy.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet issued an executive order last week that could allow convicted lawmakers to continue to hold office and stand in elections, prompting intense criticism from the main opposition party and activists.
Critics said the order was aimed at shielding allies that Congress party may need to form a ruling coalition after elections due by next May.
About 30 percent of lawmakers across federal and state assemblies have criminal charges against them.
“The decision of the union cabinet was unanimous,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari told reporters after the cabinet meeting.
“It was decided that we would take both the bill and the ordinance back.”
Gandhi, a scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty and contender for prime minister if the Congress party-led alliance wins a third straight term, made a dramatic appearance at a news conference last week to lambast the ordinance and suggested it to be “torn up and thrown out”.
The 43-year-old Congress vice-president’s outburst has also brought out into open the differences within his party between young leaders and the old guard. Several senior ministers of the government including Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had defended the ordinance.
The row comes at a time when Congress party appears to be ceding ground to the Narendra Modi-led opposition Bharatiya Janta Party, who is using corruption scandals and economic mismanagement by Singh’s government to garner public support for his own prime ministerial bid.
Several political commentators reckon the open snub by Gandhi has undermined the octogenarian Singh’s authority, making it difficult for him to continue as prime minister. Singh, however, has ruled out his resignation.
Following a Supreme Court order in July, many lawmakers, including Congress party allies, faced the prospect of losing their seats.
The ruling alliance had already moved a parliamentary bill to partially reverse the decision of the court that any lawmaker found guilty of a crime could no longer hold or run for elected office.
By pushing that change through in an executive order, opposition parties said it appeared to be trying to bypass parliament to save the political skin of its allies.
The country’s president, himself a Congress party stalwart, also sought a clarification on the ordinance that he would have to sign into law.
Before July’s Supreme Court order, convicted lawmakers took advantage of a loophole by filing appeals within three months of a guilty verdict to stay in office.
Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Angus MacSwan