NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh withdrew an order that allowed convicted lawmakers to retain office after a public rebuke from within the Gandhi family, which leads his party, caused embarrassment before polls.
Singh's cabinet, in a meeting Wednesday, decided to take back the ordinance that overturned a July Supreme Court ruling barring legislators convicted of crimes from holding public positions, Oil Minister Veerappa Moily said. Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Congress party that heads Singh's coalition government, last week slammed the executive order saying it was "nonsense" and it should be "torn up and thrown away."
Gandhi's criticism exposed the chasm between older leaders of Congress and the 43-year-old scion of India's foremost political dynasty, who had previously maintained a low profile. His disapproval also undermined Singh amid attacks by Narendra Modi, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's pick for prime minister and the main challenger to Congress, before national elections due by May.
"Gandhi tried to give an impression that he represents a different political class who can feel the pulse of the people," said Satish Misra, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. He's "asserting his leadership to contain further damage to his party's image."
While the Congress hasn't yet named its candidate for prime minister, there's been a clamor to project Gandhi, whose family has helmed the country for about four decades since independence in 1947.
India's Supreme Court, in a bid to curb the growing criminality in the world's largest democracy, issued the ruling on July 10 to help close a loophole that allowed repeated appeals against convictions. The ordinance was designed to overturn that verdict and allow convicted lawmakers to continue in legislative bodies.
About a quarter of federal and state legislators face charges including murder, rape and kidnapping, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, which has campaigned for better governance since 1999. The number of lawmakers charged with offenses has more than doubled in the last 15 years.
Stunned by Gandhi's comments, some cabinet ministers and party leaders, including those who earlier supported the ordinance, swiftly praised his intervention, saying it accurately reflected public opinion.
"It's a healthy day for democracy," Milind Deora, junior minister for communication, told reporters last week. "We are also humans. In life there is nothing wrong in accepting and trying to rectify perhaps what would be called an error."
The cabinet also decided Wednesday to withdraw legislation similar to the executive order after lawmakers didn't immediately pass the bill last month.
In his first speech in January after being named a vice president of the party, Gandhi vowed to repair a broken system of governance after successive corruption charges against Singh's administration crippled Asia's third-biggest economy and stalled policy making. Even so, he has mostly kept quiet on major issues.
"He has not spoken much about which direction the country should go," said Mohan Guruswamy, chairman of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi, referring to Gandhi. "We don't know what his vision is."
Some opposition parties led by the BJP have ridiculed Congress's reliance on a family that helped deliver Indian independence more than six decades ago and has provided the country with three prime ministers, including Gandhi's great- grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru.
Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, is projecting his record of governance and stronger-than-average economic growth in the state he has ruled since 2001 in an attempt to wrest power from the Congress at the national level.
An opinion survey released by the Times Now television channel and C-voter last month showed Modi's BJP may win three out of four states holding elections in the next few months, indicating a surge in support ahead of nationwide polls.
Singh told reporters on Oct. 1 that the ordinance had been discussed with core leaders of the party and twice in his cabinet before being sent to President Pranab Mukherjee for ratification. Gandhi met Singh at his residence Wednesday, where he is said to have explained his opposition to the ordinance, the Press Trust of India reported, without citing anyone.
"Well, there's no question of resigning," Singh told reporters while returning from the U.S. "When a point of view has been expressed, we must sit together and understand what is agitating the mind of the person who has raised the issue. That's what a democracy is about."