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Centre sweats to save MPs
- Profit cloud lifts, Sonia suspense stays

New Delhi, May 9: With the Supreme Court showing no mercy and a political consensus proving elusive, the Centre today shrugged off an air of indecisiveness and decided to expand the list of offices of profit immune to the disqualification law.

But a cloud of uncertainty continued to hang over the National Advisory Council (NAC), the so-called “super-cabinet” that was once headed by Sonia Gandhi.

The sudden flurry of activity by the government ' it had refused to spell out a clear stand so far ' was triggered by a Supreme Court ruling that said an MP can be disqualified for holding an office of profit irrespective of whether the person draws any remuneration or not. The verdict made it clear the decisive factor is the conclusion that an office is one of profit, not whether any pecuniary gain was actually made.

The ruling ' and the lack of a political consensus ' put paid to a line of thought in the government that perhaps it should opt for a constitutional amendment to the law itself, making it legal to hold dual posts.

Such an amendment would have been less cumbersome and would have solved the problem at one stroke. But it would have been seen as another instance of the legislature taking on the judiciary.

The cabinet tonight decided to table a bill to amend Section 3 of the Prevention of Disqualification of MPs Act, 1959, to widen the list of exempt posts. This, unlike a Constitution amendment that requires a two-thirds majority, will need only a simple majority.

But the decision to expand the list means each and every post in question has to be painstakingly included in the amendment draft.

Long-winded names such as Sriniketan-Santiniketan Development Authority, headed by Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, and Amar Singh’s Uttar Pradesh Development Council will have to be collected and squeezed into the draft. The status of over 40 MPs and 400 MLAs ' the states will have to move their own amendments ' is under a cloud in the wake of the office of profit controversy.

The unenviable task of speaking to the political parties and drawing up an exhaustive list over the next two days has fallen upon defence minister Pranab Mukherjee.

Besides, if the government floats a new body to reward an MP, another amendment will have to be made.

Officials refused to say whether the NAC chair will be among the exempt offices in the bill, but sources said the government may drop the post from the proposed list.

A consensus was elusive mainly because of the government’s silence on the council. Though MPs of almost all parties are affected, the Opposition feels that the government’s main objective is to save the council, which is certain to lose its primacy if Sonia is not at the helm.

Congress sources said Sonia has not taken any decision on whether she would return to the NAC after winning the Rae Bareli bypoll. Chances of a second stint are remote as by staying away, Sonia can neutralise the Opposition attack, the sources said.

Once the list is ready, the law ministry will prepare the bill, which will be moved in the budget session, slated to begin tomorrow.

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