Monday, June 25, 2012

Raisina Hill Battle... /Power & Politics/June 24, 2012


Raisina Hill Battle Won, but who will Win Sonia the War of 2014?

Sonia is finding it extremely difficult to find a suitable leader who can strike a balance between the avaricious expectations of market-driven India and the aspirations and expectations of a mass-based party like the Congress.

The Congress is all set to capture Rashtrapati Bhavan. It is, however, finding it difficult to appoint a new general to retain its political control over the Lok Sabha. It has 206 members in Parliament. But not more than a couple of them are capable of replacing Pranab Mukherjee, either as the Leader of the House or as the finance minister. It boasts of a strong leader. It hawks its Prime Minister as one of the cleanest leaders the country has ever had. Yet, it is not confident of the ability of any of its MPs to communicate both within itself and the Opposition parties with the same authority and ease Pranab could. Ever since Sonia Gandhi announced Pranabda as the UPA’s Raisina Hill candidate, the party has been in a huddle to find his replacement. Never before has a sitting minister been allowed to retain his post even for a day after his presidential nomination. Giani Zail Singh and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed quit their ministerial positions within hours of their names being public. But Pranab chose not to, because Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh couldn’t decide on his successor. As a result, the already paralysed government has been without a full-time finance minister for the past one week. North Block is now left with a boss who doesn’t take decisions. Meanwhile, the Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu is lobbying publicly with the prime minister for the finance minister’s chair.

According to senior civil servants, the hidden agenda behind keeping Pranab on as finance minister for a few days more was to clear up the mess in the telecom and infrastructure sectors. As chairman of over 60 Empowered and formal Group of Ministers, Pranabda was expected to bail the government out of the most controversial auction policy ever for spectrum allocation. TRAI had recommended a minimum price band for auction, which was not acceptable to many telecom operators. If TRAI’s suggestions were to be implemented, they would have ended up paying over `20,000 crore to the government. Pranabda smelt a rat and decided not to get trapped in the well laid-out plan; he cancelled the EGoM meeting on spectrum at the last minute, leaving his successor to face the music.

With Pranab’s elevation, the fight for control over the parliamentary wing of the party has begun. While a couple of known sycophants have already launched an operation to make Rahul Gandhi the Leader of the House, there are others who want a Sanjay or Rajiv loyalist to take over this position as well the finance minister’s job. Rahulites are dead against their leader taking this plunge at a stage when the government is not only maimed but also defamed. Never before in the history of the Congress has the promotion of a senior minister or a functionary led to such upheaval, both in the government and the party. As Pranabda gets ready to walk from North Block to Raisina Hill, he has ignited an ideological and institutional fire in political circles. He is known for his left-of-centre approach on both politics and economics and Sonia is finding it extremely difficult to find a suitable leader who can strike a balance between the avaricious expectations of market-driven India and the aspirations and expectations of a mass-based party like the Congress. While those who get frozen in any chill that makes corporate India sneeze, dominate the government, the organisation remains firmly in the hands of those for whom markets are as politically dangerous as they are for the Marxists.

Choosing Pranab’s successor is not simply a government exercise in which the Prime Minister has the upper hand. It may be possible for Manmohan to choose a finance minister of his liking, but he wouldn’t be able to impose a Leader of the House on the party. Sonia Gandhi alone will make that choice. A compromise between the party president and the prime minister may happen, with Manmohan having his way and Sonia her say in their respective selections. The finance minister may be allowed to carry on with the business of keeping corporate spirits high, but it will be the Leader of the House who would dictate the political and ideological line of the government. There is a possibility that a Gandhi loyalist such as P Chidambaram may be inducted as finance minister; and another, Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath—the senior most Lok Sabha member—as the leader of the Congress Parliamentary party. The choice of the finance minister and the Leader of House would also set the ground for the future politics of the Gandhi Parivar. The family’s need of the hour is a Pranabda of a different kind, who can line up various national and regional parties to support a Gandhi in 2014 instead of merely winning the battle for Raisina Hill.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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