NEW DELHI, Sept 23, Reuter: Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, reeling from a string of electoral setbacks and severe damage to his “Mr Clean” image, has taken yet another body blow at the hands of the Indian press.

The 44 year old leader on Thursday announced he was dropping a defamation bill which had provoked opposition of a ferocity unprecedented even by the unrestrained standards of India’s boisterous press.

His decision not to pursue the bill, which newspapers saw as a bid to kill investigative journalism, came as abruptly as his action last month in rushing it through the lower house of parliament without public debate or discussion in his ‘own party.

Journalists and newspaper proprietors were united against the bill and boycotted all briefings and news conferences by Gandhi’s ministers unless they took a stand against it.

“He doesn’t want to give a campaign point to the opposition and he also doesn’t want a hostile press in an election year,” he said.

Gandhi, who will be seeking reelection before the end of next year, has had an uncomfortable relationship with the media in the past 20 months.

The Ruling Congress (I) Party has lost a string of state assembly elections in the north and south since last year and his own vote capturing image as “Mr. Clean” of Indian politics is in a shambles.

He has also had to contend with opposition from within his own party. Congress members privately complain that Gandhi is inaccessible to most of them and that free debates no longer take place within the party.

K.P. Unikrishnan, an Opposition MP, said the bill had done Gandhi serious damage with political parties, civil liberties groups and others joining in denouncing him.

“I don’t think it will make much difference now that he has withdrawn the bill. The damage has already been done,” he said.

Among the bill’s most controversial elements was a clause which would have forced defendants in libel cases to prove their innocence, reversing the principle of India law which puts the burden of proof on the prosecution

It also sought to considerably widen the definition of defamation and provided stiff jail terms for offenders.

Congress party members were relieved when Gandhi decided to let the bill drop.

Murali Bhandare, an upper house Congress Member, said of

Gandhi’s decision: “It is a welcome step. In a democracy any Prime Minister who heeds public opinion goes up in (esteem).”

The Indian Express an anti-Gandhi newspaper, said: “Demoralised, Buffeted by one act of highhandedness after another, helpless in the face of rulers who have hijacked the country, the people have need of a victory. They have got one.”

Article extracted from this publication >>