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Mallikarjun Kharge's decision to skip meet to select Lokpal makes Congress' anti-graft plank look fragile

Mallikarjun Kharge’s decision to opt out of a meeting to appoint the Lokpal after objecting to his status as a 'special invitee' is flawed and politically counterproductive.

In his letter to the prime minister, Kharge says, “At the outset, let me state on behalf of myself, my party and the entire Opposition that the 'Special Invitee Invitation' is a concerted effort to exclude the independent voice of the Opposition altogether from the selection process of the most important anti-corruption watchdog. It negates the letter and spirit of the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act 2013 in toto. A perusal simplicitor of the Lokpal Act 2013, its intent and objective, reflect that the leader of the Opposition cannot be substituted as a special invitee.”

Consider the following —

First, Kharge is well within his rights to think that he, as a leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, is the voice of the entire Opposition. However, as of today, the Congress has 48 members (improved after the bypolls in Rajasthan) in the Lok Sabha. There are other significant Opposition parties as well — like the AIADMK (37 MPs in the Lok Sabha) and the Biju Janata Dal (20 MPs in the Lok Sabha).

It is also questionable whether Kharge is the voice of his own party. The Congress had named him as the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha because Rahul Gandhi did not want to take up that responsibility and Sonia Gandhi could not have become the leader of the Congress in the House, a position without an official stamp. Kharge was a surprise choice by Sonia in 2014. He was chosen because he was low-key and his nominal elevation, beyond initial dismay, didn’t hurt anyone in the party.

File image of Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge. Image courtesy: PIB

File image of Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge. Image courtesy: PIB

Given the structure of the Congress party, the decision on whether or not to attend a meeting called to select the Lokpal could not have been one taken by him. It would be Rahul Gandhi’s decision, taken in consultation with whosoever he deemed fit.

Secondly, Kharge contends that the "leader of the Opposition cannot be substituted as a special invitee." Again, Kharge, as the leader of the largest party in the Opposition, is free to consider himself as the "leader of Opposition.” However, the fact remains that given the minuscule numbers (44) the Congress secured in the 16th Lok Sabha when it was constituted in May 2014, it could not get the honour of being called the main Opposition party. Also, its leader in the House could not get the status of the leader of Opposition. The position is equivalent to a union cabinet minister, with accompanying perks and privileges. Kharge, by mentioning the issue of the status of the leader of Opposition, is only reminding the Congress of its own ignominy.

Kharge and his peers in the Congress are well aware that the selection committee headed by the prime minister could not meet because of the requirement in the Lokpal Act that it should include the leader of Opposition. Since there is no leader of Opposition, a meeting of the selection committee could not be convened.

He, as the leader of the Congress, has been accommodated as a “special invitee” to be a part of the selection committee. The objective of this is to give representation to the Opposition and facilitate the long-awaited appointment of the Lokpal.

Third, does it make a difference whether Kharge was invited as leader of Opposition or a special invitee? He has been invited to be a part of the deliberations and not to be a mute spectator, as he thinks and want others to think.

Mark Kharge's words. He has said that the special invitee invitation is an attempt to 'exclude the independent voice of the opposition altogether.'

Kharge and his political bosses should be reminded of an equally important incident which took place on 3 September, 2010, when the UPA was in power. On that day, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had convened a meeting of a high-powered committee at 7, Race Course Road to select the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), an anti-corruption watchdog.

The then home minister P Chidambaram and then leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj were its members. Three names — Bijoy Chatterjee, PJ Thomas and Subbaroyan Krishnan Uttrakhand — were placed before them. Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram recommended Thomas’s name as the CVC. Sushma Swaraj differed bitterly with them, arguing that there was a corruption case pending against him. She pleaded that the two other names, or some other names, be considered. However, Manmohan and Chidambaram overruled her and Thomas was appointed as CVC.

The Congress later faced embarrassment on this issue. Six months later, the Supreme Court, in response to a petition filed by former chief election commissioner JM Lyngdoh in March 2011, quashed the appointment of Thomas as CVC. The Supreme Court's reasoning was that a corruption case was pending against him.

In the present case, Kharge could have attended the meeting, and if he thought that a wrong person was being named, he could have made his disagreement known.

The Congress, by making Kharge's two-page letter public, may well have handed over a major talking point to the ruling BJP. The BJP can allege that the Congress lacks the intent and will to fight corruption.

It is also noteworthy that this controversy comes a day after P Chidambaram's son Karti was arrested by the CBI.

Updated Date: Mar 02, 2018 15:41 PM

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