Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, January 12, 2009

THERE are few certainties in Indian politics but one that can be taken for granted is that young Rahul Gandhi will follow in the footsteps of his father, grandmother and great grandfather and become the Congress president. He could even emulate them and become prime minister if the voter doesn’t stand in the way. But these are in the realm of the future. So is there some sort of a cold war at the top levels in the Congress and the government that should make senior partymen suddenly revive speculation about a Rahul prime ministership at a time when the party is readying for the Lok Sabha election? Pranab Mukherjee and Digvijay Singh are two of the seniormost Congress leaders, yet it is difficult to understand the rationale of the foreign minister’s espousal of the Rahul ticket and its instant seconding by the general secretary.

Both are seasoned politicians not prone to indulging in inappropriate, much- less reckless statements. I feel it is an ill- timed statement which has merely undermined the position of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Of course, both may feel they deserve more. Pranabda has been a loyal foot soldier of the family for over three generations in an illustrious career that has seen him reach the gates of Race Course Road and Rashtrapati Bhavan. But he hasn’t got to occupy either. After being soundly defeated in 2003 after 10 years in power, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Digvijay has chosen to rebuild his career around the dynasty, quite like the way his mentor Arjun Singh did during the Indira and Rajiv era.

Many feel that Pranabda and Digvijay are reflecting the opinions of a section of Congress which feels that the party cannot afford to approach the voter in April/ May under the leadership of Manmohan. In the Obama era, they say, the party needs a leader who will do to L. K. Advani what Obama did to McCain. They have a point. But do senior leaders have to stoop so low as to take upon themselves the role of kingmakers. A few months ago it seemed different.

Asked if Manmohan would be the party’s prime ministerial candidate, Sonia’s answer wasn’t a Yes or a No but “ Why Not?”, which I would think is the equivalent of an emphatic “ Yes”. Mercifully, though it took 48 hours, Sonia put a lid on the controversy by having Shakeel Ahmed, the AICC spokesman, state that she stood by her earlier statement that Manmohan continues to be her choice.

Rahul has been away for a while, even skipping the swearing- in of his good friend, Omar Abdullah, in Srinagar. His silence makes me think he is in no hurry to bring the speculation to an end. The only conclusion that can be drawn from the different voices being heard is that Sonia has one set of spokesmen and Rahul another.

Only Manmohan has none. The country is going through an economic downslide, terror is on the upswing and these are times when talk of a leadership change can unsettle and even harm any leadership’s ability to deal with crises. But for some, national interest is never delinked from personal stakes.

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