The man who could be PM

By Kedar Nath Pandey

Who will be the next prime minister? This is a question that has popped up periodically since the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power. What makes it particularly striking is that it is not linked to the general elections that alone should determine a change in the top post. It is thus, reflective of a pervasive view that people expect prime minister Manmohan Singh to be replaced mid-term, and that despite having been head of government for over seven years now he is still seen as “interim.”

There seems to be a set routine. Every now and again, a deliberate statement made by a Congress leader — and they have all taken turns, Pranab Mukherjee, Digvijay Singh, Veerappa Moily, Prithviraj Chavan — sparks off a wave of speculation that Singh is going to be asked to step down for the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi.

This time too it was no different when a Congress general secretary seen to be close to Rahul Gandhi said on the latter’s 41st birthday that it was time he became the prime minister.

Television channels were glued to the news, with discussions revolving around the possibility of a mid-term change. The Congress finally denied the possibility of any such change with spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan making it clear that the good doctor would continue to lead the government.

Of course she took care to add, “Rahul is not only a youth icon, but a national icon. He has emerged as the future leader of not only this party but of the entire nation.” Digvijay Singh also “clarified” his remarks saying that all he wanted to say was that he would like to see Rahul Gandhi prime minister “in my lifetime.” And, “It does not mean Dr. Manmohan Singh should go. I never meant it, we are happy under his leadership. I meant that Rahul Gandhi has all the qualities of becoming the prime minister.”

As if on cue Dr. Manmohan Singh broke his long silence and met five select editors to speak on various issues. This exercise was projected as the prime minister’s willingness to mingle with journalists, and here he declared, “Whenever the Congress makes up its mind I will be very happy to step down. As long as I am here I have a job to do.” For good measure, he added, “The general proposition that the younger people should take over is the right proposition.”

He basically confirmed that the Congress had been looking at the issue, but had taken a decision not to replace him just yet. Then who (will replace him) is clearly Rahul Gandhi. And this little episode of statements, denials and clarification once again established, lest any one had forgotten, that the prime minister was in position because the Nehru-Gandhi family still wanted him there, and that Rahul Gandhi was soon going to stake claim to the post.

Congress sources admitted that there have been several occasions in these seven years when the clamour for Rahul Gandhi to take over has assumed serious proportions. The high command, the sources claimed, has seriously considered it but so far Rahul Gandhi’s own reluctance and the fact that the conditions have never been totally right have worked in Manmohan Singh’s favour.

The recent brainstorming within the Congress, if it can be called that, has come to the conclusion that Rahul Gandhi should lead the party to the polls in the 2014 elections with a new slogan, and of course new leadership. And that to bring him in before the polls would deprive the party of its one trump card at the crucial time. The party, facing the heat of price rise and corruption nowadays, is reluctant to lose the one ace it has that could deliver the votes in 2014.

A senior Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh admitted that Rahul Gandhi would not like to head a coalition government but given the circumstances, might have no other choice. Interestingly there is no second view in the Congress that in 2014 Rahul Gandhi will lead the party to the polls, and become the prime minister if it wins.But there are a few other Congressmen who have thrown their hats into the ring, albeit quietly.

The list includes union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee who is also looking at the office of the President of India, Union home minister P. Chidambaram, and defence minister A.K. Antony. Other names that keep popping up but are unable to sustain the speculation include Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar and even Rahul loyalist Digvijay Singh.

Of the list, only Chidambaram is seen by Congressmen as a politician who could join hands with parties like the BJP to get to the top post. The party has not forgotten, or forgiven, his days in the Tamil Maanila Congress.

Of the three top contenders Pranab Mukherjee is seen as the most serious, not just by sections of the Congress party, but also as the C-voter poll shows, by the voters. He has made it clear that he would like to retire and give place to the younger people to take over, leading to speculation that he would prefer to become the President of India at this stage of his life.

However, he has strong competition from Dr. Manmohan Singh who is reportedly keen to become the Congress nominee when President Pratibha Patil superannuates next year. This will give him a good five years with all the pomp and glory associated with the President’s office. In case the Congress agrees to shift Singh to Rashtrapati Bhawan, the top post will then be open for an interim prime minister.

The Congress top brass has seriously toyed with the idea of bringing in Rahul Gandhi at this stage, so that he can lead the party into the polls. But given the scams and the spiraling prices the party has abandoned this idea, in favour of “Rahul as PM” in the next general elections. So who will be the interim prime minister?

Mukherjee and Chidambaram remain front runners according to a senior Congressman who personally, however, felt that A.K. Antony would emerge as the winner if the occasion so arose. The defence minister has positioned himself as the “dark horse” and given his pliability and closeness to the Nehru-Gandhi family, remains very much in the reckoning.

The genesis of the ongoing ‘war’ between finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and home minister P. Chidambaram can be traced to this. The latter has been eyeing the finance ministry for a while and when asked in an interview what portfolio he would get in the expected reshuffle, retorted, “Do I have a choice? I don’t think I have a choice.”

He said that the decisions were made only by two persons in the system today, the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi. However, being an astute politician this has not stopped him from keeping an eye out for the prime minister’s chair although Congress leaders insist that even he knows this will only be with help from parties “other than the Congress.”

Recently he was seen sleeping during a function when Rahul Gandhi was speaking, and next day tried to make it up with a passionate speech where he said, “close your eyes, listen to Rahul, you will hear Rajiv’s echo.” This has not particularly endeared him to the Nehru-Gandhi family, with Digvijay Singh being used on and off to take potshots at the home minister, calling him “intellectually arrogant.”

Party leaders feel that the Congress president does not differentiate between the two ministers, and is “quite happy” to see them slug it out over the “bugging” episode, taking good care to keep out of it. As a veteran Congressman explained, “This fighting keeps both in shapes, in that they cut into each others (political) weight.”

Mukherjee, the sources said, is not particularly happy with current developments as instead of being “the” minister he is now “one of the ministers.” But the twist is this tale comes from a 10 -Janpath reluctance to fulfill Manmohan Singh’s wishes and make him the President of India.

The 2014 general elections are not going to be an easy ride for the Congress, and in what currently promises to be a Parliament hung on perhaps just a few seats, a pliable and willing President will be crucial to Congress plans.

While of the current lot, Congress president Sonia Gandhi trusts Manmohan Singh more than others, there is speculation within the party whether she trusts him enough to make him the President of India in what will in all probability be his last hurrah before retirement from public life. The seven years in power has seen many downs in the relations between the prime minister and the Congress president, who has not hesitated to use the party to cut him down to size. INAV

(Copyright Interpretative News and Views)

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