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Sep 28, 2013 05:23 PM IST | Source: ft.com

Rahul Gandhi's 3-minute speech stuns India's ruling party

Mr Gandhi - great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who led India to independence in 1947 - has long been dismissed as a lightweight politician and is struggling to carve an image of himself as a figure of moral authority ahead of next year's general election in the world's largest democracy.

Rahul Gandhi's 3-minute speech stuns India's ruling party

India's governing Congress party was thrown into confusion on Friday when Rahul Gandhi, who controls it with his mother Sonia, described the party's official policy of tolerance towards criminal members of parliament as "nonsense" and "wrong".


Mr Gandhi - great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who led India to independence in 1947 - has long been dismissed as a lightweight politician and is struggling to carve an image of himself as a figure of moral authority ahead of next year's general election in the world's largest democracy.


His unexpected three-minute statement at a press club in New Delhi was a deliberate snub to senior ministers. In the face of public mockery, but with the tacit support of other parties, Congress leaders had prepared a legal ordinance to bypass a Supreme Court ruling against criminal MPs.


"My opinion of the ordinance is that it's complete nonsense and that it should be torn up and thrown out," Mr Gandhi said after hijacking a news conference by a nonplussed Ajay Maken, an MP who had moments earlier been defending the government's plans.


"If we want to fight corruption in this country, whether it's us - the Congress party, or the BJP [the opposition Bharatiya Janata party], we cannot continue making these small compromises, because when we make these small compromises we compromise everything," said the 43-year-old Mr Gandhi. "I personally feel that what our government has done as far as this ordinance is concerned is wrong."


The BJP, whose prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is scheduled to hold a rally in Delhi on Sunday, was driven on to the back foot by Mr Gandhi's outburst. "Is this the Congress party or some Nautanki [folk theatre] company?" asked Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a BJP spokesman. "The Congress party cannot gloss over its government's failures by resorting to such gimmicks."


In July, the Supreme Court decided to clean up the parliament, ruling that sitting MPs would henceforth be disqualified immediately if convicted in a serious criminal case. The government's proposed ordinance would allow them to remain if the conviction were stayed because of an appeal, a process that can take years in India's convoluted legal system.


Numerous criminals are involved in national and state politics in India. After the last general election, 162 of the 543 members of the Lok Sabha, the lower house, had criminal cases against them, including charges of rape, murder and kidnapping, according to civil rights watchdogs.


Some politicians complain that they may be embroiled in frivolous or malicious cases filed by their rivals and designed to keep them out of parliament, but Supreme Court judges have not recently been swayed by such arguments.


Also on Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that voters should from now on be given the right to cast a vote for "none of the above" at the polling booth, and directed the Election Commission to ensure that the choice was added to ballot papers and electronic voting machines.

A large number of such "negative" votes would inevitably embarrass any politician who won a constituency with only a few positive votes in his favour. Sanjay Parikh, counsel for the People's Union for Civil Liberties, which requested the ruling in the public interest, said the "right to reject" would deter parties from fielding "tainted candidates".


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