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First among equals?

First among equals?

Author: Jaya Jaitly
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 22, 2007

The Congress is trying to elevate party president Sonia Gandhi to the level of the unofficial head of the state

Today, we are left with the position of the chairperson of the UPA, which is not designated through a rule or resolution of Parliament. Nor is there any provision in the Constitution that provides for a post of chairperson of a post-election alliance when the person is not the Prime Minister.

People may well say that in the NDA Government from 1998 to 2004, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also designated as the chairperson of the NDA. However, this was an informal designation that did not carry its own recognition or sanctity, nor was it detached from that of his role as Prime Minister.

The NDA was only an informal political platform with a label to bring allies together and was not a legal entity or an officially designated body with a separate status of its own. It can disintegrate anytime and it did not even have an office or letterhead of its own. The chairperson of that body had only as much power as did Mr Vajpayee as the Prime Minister. The UPA is no different. The post of chairperson cannot be parallel to or higher than that of the Prime Minister, nor can it be treated as a part of the Government.

In contrast to the earlier dispensation, the Prime Minister has allocated to his party president the position of chairperson of the UPA without precedent or legal sanction, nor any sense of propriety or fair play. It has been taken for granted that this accords the Congress president an official position in the Government itself as well as automatic sanction to preside over functions that are conducted entirely from public funds. In effect, there is no doubt in the public mind that this is visibly projected as the highest post in the Government.

Many sectors of Government are thus using funds spent from the public exchequer to host the Congress party and its president, which, apart from being improper, is to the detriment of other parties within the UPA coalition. Here are some examples:

* Public advertisements issued by the Congress State Governments in all national newspapers announcing anything are accompanied by photographs of the Prime Minister, Chief Minister or other Ministers but are nearly always alongside, preceded or engulfed by pictures of the UPA chairperson.

* The Satyagraha Conference held recently in Delhi was announced as a Congress party event. However, it was entirely organised and facilitated by the Ministry of External Affairs at an official venue and the host of the programme was the Congress president.

* The National Games at Guwahati was fully funded and organised by the State and the Union Government, but it was inaugurated by the Congress president.

* The inauguration of the bus service from Jammu & Kashmir to Pakistan was a country-to-country event coordinated by the Governments of both countries. However, prominence was given to the Congress president who flagged it off.

* The Central Social Welfare Board, an autonomous fully owned body of the Union Government, recently launched special schemes for women of the North-East. The Congress president inaugurated the schemes at a Government function in the presence of a number of NGOs that would presumably be among the recipients.

* The Surajkund Crafts Mela is an annual event, which has been inaugurated by Chief Ministers, Union Ministers or Governors for the past 20 years. It is wholly funded and organised by Haryana and the Union Government. In 2007, for the first time, the head of the Congress party inaugurated the event.

The Chief Minister of Haryana followed the inauguration with advertisements in all newspapers the next day thanking the "president of the AICC" for inaugurating the fair. While it is not known whether these advertisements were from party or Government funds, gratitude was expressed publicly to the Congress president and not UPA chairperson. Dividing lines between these designations have already been blurred and one can easily be substituted by the other.

These and many other occasions have been used by the Congress to elevate its president, Ms Sonia Gandhi, to the level of the highest Government functionary although there is no official, legal or parliamentary sanction for the same. It may be pertinent to ask the Prime Minister whether the same situation would prevail if there had not been a member of the dynasty heading the Congress.

Renunciations may be good for the heartstrings, but rewards for these cannot come from Government purse strings to exalt individuals and benefit parties. Such a precedent can enable the Shiv Sena, if it heads a Central coalition, to make Mr Bal Thackeray its chairperson, the Left parties leading a coalition can make Mr Biman Bose its chairperson or the Samajwadi Party can appoint Mr Amitabh Bachchan as its chairperson. Why not?

Wrong precedents guarantee aberrations and constitutional complications in the future. If the position of the Prime Minister is undermined, and public funds used to promote the interests of one party by the creation and misuse of super political posts, we should not be surprised at what tomorrow could bring.

(The author is a politician and former president of JD-U)


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