India's ruling party in disarray as No. 2 Rahul Gandhi slams govt over criminal lawmakers

Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi addressing a press conference in New Delhi, India, on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013. Mr Gandhi, the scion of India's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, lashed out at the government on Friday for proposing a law to pro
Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi addressing a press conference in New Delhi, India, on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013. Mr Gandhi, the scion of India's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, lashed out at the government on Friday for proposing a law to protect convicted lawmakers from disqualification. -- PHOTO: AP 

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Mr Rahul Gandhi, No. 2 in India's ruling Congress party, turned on the government on Friday, calling a recent move to prevent criminal lawmakers from being ejected from Parliament "complete nonsense".

The comments from Mr Gandhi, chief campaigner for the Congress as it fights for a third-consecutive term in national elections due next year, sparked speculation that it was a deliberate damage control plan after the party was portrayed as being weak on corruption.

The government moved an executive order earlier this week attempting to overturn a Supreme Court decision that national and state lawmakers should be disqualified if they are convicted in criminal cases carrying jail terms of more than two years.

"My opinion on the ordinance is that it is complete nonsense and should be torn up and thrown away," said a bearded Mr Gandhi at an impromptu press conference in New Delhi on Friday.

"If you want to fight corruption in the country... we cannot continue making these small compromises."

The ordinance was decried by the main political opposition as unconstitutional and condemned by anti-corruption activists who openly questioned the government's oft-stated commitment to battling endemic and growing graft in India.

The NDTV news channel, citing sources, reported that it would now be withdrawn in what would be a blow to the authority of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is on a United States visit.

"The ordinance cleared by the Cabinet... has been a matter of much public debate," Dr Singh said in a statement late on Friday.

"The issues raised will be considered on my return to India after due deliberations in the Cabinet."

The ordinance, which needs the president's approval, allows convicted lawmakers to continue to participate in parliamentary proceedings, but would bar them from voting after debates or receiving a government salary.

The government had earlier argued that the Supreme Court decision was unfair, saying politicians can often fall prey to conviction on "frivolous grounds" and should have the right to appeal after convictions.

"The Congress party saying that it rejects the ordinance is a desperate damage control exercise," said Mr Arun Jaitley, senior leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Opposition parties like the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party (the "common man" party), headed by activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal, had visited President Pranab Mukherjee asking him to reject the ordinance.

"Rahul Gandhi thinks everybody in the country is a fool. They themselves bring in the ordinance and then tear it up," tweeted Mr Kejriwal.

Mr Gandhi's mother Sonia is India's most powerful politician as head of the Congress party, which has ruled India for most of its post-independence history under the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Mr Gandhi, 43, is often portrayed as a reluctant leader who has resisted pressure to take Cabinet positions for years, but is now projected as the face of the Congress ahead of national polls in 2014.