By John Chalmers
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty scion Rahul Gandhi on Friday slammed a cabinet move to protect politicians found guilty of crimes, embarrassing the government led by his own party just months from a general election.
About 30 percent of lawmakers across federal and state assemblies have criminal charges against them.
The government has come under fire since it passed an order this week that could allow convicted lawmakers to continue to hold office and stand in elections. Critics say the move was designed to shield allies that Gandhi's Congress party may need to form a ruling coalition after elections due by next May.
A contender for prime minister if Congress returns to power, the normally publicity-shy Gandhi called a news conference to lambast the ordinance passed on Tuesday by a government that has been dogged for years by corruption scandals.
"My opinion on the ordinance is that it's complete nonsense and it should be torn up and thrown out," he said. "I feel, personally feel, that what our government has done as far as this ordinance is concerned is wrong."
Gandhi's rare public utterances mean that there is huge interest in what he says when he does speak. Little is known about what the 43-year-old thinks about important issues of the day and what he would do if he were to become prime minister.
His father, grandmother and great-grandfather were prime ministers and his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who is head of the Congress party, is arguably India's most powerful politician.
The Congress party appointed him as its vice president this year to boost his profile. But he has been eclipsed by Narendra Modi, a charismatic pro-business leader who is now the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Bhratiya Janata Party.
Commentators on Indian TV news channels said Rahul Gandhi may have stepped into the convicted politicians debate to distance himself from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his corruption-tainted cabinet ahead of the election.
"ENDANGERING FAITH IN DEMOCRACY"
Following a Supreme Court order in July, many lawmakers, including Congress party allies, faced the prospect of losing their seats.
Congress had already moved a parliamentary bill to partially reverse the decision of the court that any lawmaker found guilty of a crime could no longer hold or run for elected office.
By pushing that change through in an executive order this week, opposition parties said it appeared to be trying to bypass parliament to save the political skin of its allies.
The government had already faced criticism over the move from within its own ranks. Milind Deora, a junior minister, tweeted on Thursday that it could "endanger already-eroding public faith in democracy".
The country's president, himself a Congress party stalwart, also sought a clarification on the ordinance that he would have to sign into law.
Before July's Supreme Court order, convicted lawmakers took advantage of a loophole by filing appeals within three months of a guilty verdict to stay in office.
One case due to conclude next week concerns Lalu Prasad Yadav, a former chief minister of the eastern state of Bihar and a frequent ally of the Congress party. He is one of the accused in a scam where money was allegedly taken from state coffers to provide fodder for livestock that later turned out not to exist.
Another influential figure, Congress party lawmaker Rasheed Masood, was found guilty last week in a corruption case that involved nominations for places at medical school. He had looked set to be the first to lose his seat under the court order.
(Additional reporting by Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Nick Macfie)