Monday, August 25, 2008

Power & Politics/Mail Today, August 25, 2008

WHY NOT? Certainly.” You can now put to rest all speculation about who will lead the Congress Party in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. At 24 Akbar Road last week, asked whether Manmohan Singh would be declared the party’s prime ministerial candidate before the polls, Sonia uttered those three words.

That was enough for Congress leaders and family sycophants who had hitherto contemptuously dismissed any thought of anyone except the Nehru- Gandhi dynasty leading the party to the polls veering around to the idea that it will be Manmohan and not Sonia or Rahul Gandhi who will take on the BJP’s challenge in a little less than a year from now. Curiously, just a couple of days earlier, when some senior Congress leaders met for preliminary discussions on the party’s election strategy and the manifesto, some leaders had softly, very very softly, spoken of these very prospects of an “ outsider” taking on the mantle next year. Sonia’s three word answer, made in the presence of the Prime Minister, was all that was needed for the drumbeaters in the Congress to bring on the paeans for Manmohan. And amongst the chattering classes, where talk till now centred around prime minister- in– waiting LK Advani, the odds are now seen to be in favour of Manmohan.

I was initially as bewildered as Congressmen because in the 14 Lok Sabha elections so far, the party never projected anyone outside the Nehru- Gandhi family as its leader. In the first three general elections before the dynasty took shape, Jawaharlal Nehru was the undisputed leader despite there being no shortage of heavyweights in his Cabinet. Unlike present day Congressmen, they not only disagreed with Nehru, but even often dueled with him in public.

There was no election during the brief Lal Bahadur Shastri interrugnum, but following his death in Tashkent, the party once again took refuge in the family and opted for Indira Gandhi because the many fueding 70- plus senior party bosses could not reach a consensus on anyone amongst themselves.

She continued to be the face of the party for 18 years from 1966, and on the day she was assassinated, the party passed on the mantle to her son Rajiv despite the fact that he had been in politics for barely three years then. Narasimha Rao followed, but remember that he had retired from politics and even sent his belongings back to Andhra Pradesh when Sonia, and not the electorate, beckoned him.

In the three Lok Sabha elections between 1996 and 1999, it was Sonia’s face that adorned the posters though the party never got anywhere near power. After the last elections, she was seen as the natural choice but surprised everyone by brushing aside the entreaties of tearful Congressmen and appointing The in court Sonia: Decided Manmohan. For four years, Manmohan was seen as a wimp, blessed with neither a spine nor basic political skills. July 22 has changed all that. Those who called him nikkammah , non political and a weak prime minister are now in dread of the future. A newly confident Manmohan can now taunt his opponents by quoting Mark Twain who said more than a century ago: “ Reports of my ( political) death are greatly exaggerated”. Will “ Why not?” give way to “ Certainly”. The ball is in Sonia Gandhi's court.

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