Losing face

He may have won, but Rahul Gandhi has rubbed off more of the UPA's authority.

After hectic meetings at the highest levels yesterday, the UPA decided to kill its draft ordinance to shield convicted legislators from immediate disqualification. A week ago, the government had braved criticism about the intent, method and timing of the ordinance. Until Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi hijacked a press conference to announce his strong disagreement with this "nonsense", effectively changing the party line and attacking a cabinet decision, even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was abroad meeting important heads of state. The UPA is attempting a dignified version of what Ajay Maken was forced to do at the press conference — reverse its position 180 degrees, withdraw both ordinance and bill. All its lofty talk of responding to diverse views cannot hide the fact that it essentially had no choice. This turbulence had one cause — the lack of basic policy coordination in the Congress, and between party and government. And it has one consequence — the undercutting of the authority of PM and cabinet.

The ordinance is not the issue any longer, but that Rahul Gandhi's intervention exposed what had been implicit so far, the fact that the cabinet's considered and collective decisions could be rudely rewritten by the party leadership at any point. This is not the first time the prime minister's authority has been challenged, from outside his government and within it. The supposed rift between the UPA and the Congress had been projected right from the early days of UPA 1, as the party refused to endorse contentious decisions about economic reform or foreign policy. This destructive impression has persisted, to the extent that ministries and agencies have often tended to hew in different directions. Now, Rahul Gandhi's seemingly impulsive action only adds another layer of uncertainty, even catching the party unaware.

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