New Delhi/Washington: Hours before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to hold a summit meeting with US President Barack Obama, Rahul Gandhi, the man who could possibly succeed him, threw a political bombshell when he rubbished a controversial ordinance passed by the union cabinet as "wrong" and "complete nonsense" and one that deserved to be "torn and thrown away".
His impromptu remarks threw Indian politics into a tailspin, with the prime minister issuing a statement in Washington that the issues raised will be considered by the cabinet on his return to India next week.
A former aide to the prime minister, Sanjaya Baru, in fact suggested that Manmohan Singh should resign and Rahul Gandhi should apologise to him for undermining his position and authority.
The ordinance that was cleared Tuesday by the cabinet, headed by prime minister, seeks to protect convicted lawmakers. The prime minister left the next day on a five-day visit to the US.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders immediately asked the prime minister to resign.
In what came as a major embarrassment for the Manmohan Singh government, Gandhi trashed the ordinance in an unexpected appearance at the Press Club of India where Congress communication department head Ajay Maken was painstakingly defending it.
"What the government has done is wrong," Gandhi told surprised journalists.
Apparently distancing himself from his party's line on the controversial ordinance - sent by the cabinet to the president - that has evoked sharp response from sections of the opposition and the public at large, Gandhi said: "It is time to stop this nonsense.
"My opinion of the ordinance is that it is complete nonsense. It should be torn up and thrown away."
The dramatic pronouncements were immediately termed as "grandstanding", "a charade" and aimed at "damage control" by the BJP, while the Left leader Gurudas Dasgupta said he was "baffled" by Rahul Gandhi's comment.
Gandhi said the ordinance was born out of "political considerations" and it was time "political parties, including mine, should stop making these kind of compromises.
"..We cannot continue make these small compromises," he said.
The de facto number two in the party refused to take any other questions, indicating that he had just come to give his "personal opinion".
There was initially silence from the prime minister's camp with sources suggesting that he would not make any comment about domestic issues on foreign soil. But soon suggestions appeared on the social media that he should quit and return home and the issue threatened to overshadow the summit meeting with Obama. The prime minister then issued a short statement.
"The ordinance cleared by the cabinet pertaining to the Representation of the People Act has been a matter of much public debate. The Congress vice president has also written to me on the issue and also made a statement. The government is seized of all these developments. The issues raised will be considered on my return to India after due deliberations in the cabinet," the statement said.
External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said in Washington that Rahul Gandhi's comments were not aimed to undermine the position of the prime minister.
Baru, the former press advisor to Manmohan Singh, however, felt Rahul Gandhi's statement was tantamount to insubordination of the prime minister and undermined his position and authority."I don't think why he (prime minister) should continue, he should call off his meetings (in the US) and return... The manner in which this has been done is insulting. I think he (prime minister) should quit," said Baru.
BJP leader Arun Jaitley said said "the whole country is waiting to see if the prime minister has any self-respect left. Whether he accepts the decision of his cabinet being called nonsense."
The Congress ministers, who were till the morning defending the ordinance, made a u-turn to support Rahul Gandhi, the party's emerging star.
The ordinance is with President Pranab Mukherjee, who has already sought clarifications from Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde and Law Minister Kapil Sibal. The ordinance seeks to overturn the Supreme Court ruling that bars convicted MPs and legislators from attending house proceedings.
Maken, who till moments ago was defending the ordinance, said the Congress was now opposed to it.
"Rahul Gandhi is our leader. His view is now the official view of the Congress party. If he opposes the ordinance, the Congress also opposes it," he said as journalists thronged around him after Rahul Gandhi left.
"He does not want persons with criminal background to get elected to the parliament or state legislatures."
Hinting what could be the fate of the ordinance, Maken further said: "The view of the Congress should be supreme."