Frequent denials no way to counter perception of rift between PM and Sonia
Normally, offence is not considered the best defence. When it comes to Indian politics, the defence is now proving to be a cardinal offence. Frequent denial has often proved to be the most ineffective weapon to erase a strong perception. For the past few months, both the Congress and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have been strongly denying the perceived rift between the two on many political and administrative issues. But the perception refuses to die. It keeps popping up whenever Manmohan or Congress President Sonia Gandhi speaks on any public platform or interact with a captive media. The Prime Minister had to undergo the agony of denial again while returning from his trip to Japan and Thailand. Here’s what he had to offer when asked about the discord: “In all truthfulness, there are no differences between me and the Congress president. We are together on almost every issue and wherever consultations are needed, I consult the president.” Neither the correspondent nor the PM clarified the issues on which the duo agreed to disagree in the past year. Since Manmohan rarely opens his mouth or expresses his opinion, it is left to either his official or private spin doctors to explain. They have been giving him full credit for all the correct decisions and passing the buck to Congress regarding any incorrect decision taken by the government.
But the debate over the rift between the head of the government and the chief of the UPA’s leading party has raised a question mark on the relationship between Congress and the government. If there are no differences as the Prime Minister claimed, it leads one to draw the conclusion that either he simply follows the high command’s diktat, or that Sonia is unconcerned about implications of decisions and actions taken by the government.
In a healthy democracy, it is diversity of views that give institutions credibility. Even those who support the Congress are aghast at the denial mode in which the party and the government are in. They feel the PM would have gained politically by admitting that there have been healthy differences between him and the party on various issues that were resolved after discussions. After all, it is the party and the PM who won the elections. The reality is that the Congress without a Gandhi is a humungous ship without a captain. The party, under Sonia, improved its tally from 112 seats in 1999 to 206 in 2009. She was able to deliver victory on the basis of political alignments and promises made on the manifesto. During the past nine years, however, the government has ignored many promises in the manifesto concerning the social sector.
According to insiders, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. The Opposition has charged that there are two power centres in the country and the PM is remote-controlled from 10 Janpath, the official residence of the Congress president. Both the Congress and PM lack the courage to admit that there have been times when they haven’t shared the same view on many issues. Even recently, the PM took the diametrically opposite view to the party’s on the dastardly massacre of top Congress leaders by Red terrorists in Chhattisgarh. Both Manmohan and Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde assured the state’s BJP government of their full support and termed the assault a terrorist attack. But the Congress president and vice-president Rahul Gandhi were extremely aggressive in their tone during their meeting with Chief Minister Raman Singh and almost asked for his resignation. It was the state’s chief secretary Sunil Kumar who saved the situation by accepting responsibility. On dealing with Naxalism, both the Congress and government have been speaking in two voices. When he was home minister, P Chidambaram had ignored the advice of his party colleagues to treat Leftist extremism as a mere economic issue. He always treated it as an attack on democracy, and the party has now veered around to his view.
It is not just on Maoist terror that there appears to be a divide between the party and the government. It is a well-known fact that the government’s major concern has been to promote everything that brings in foreign investment and creates a favourable climate for Indian corporates to flourish. It is the same policy, which Manmohan followed as finance minister under P V Narasimha Rao; the party lost the election in 1996. Sonia has learnt lessons from that debacle and would like the government to follow a policy which ensures equitable distribution of growth while also inviting massive foreign investment. A quiet anger is simmering in party circles about the way various popular schemes like the Food Security Bill, Women’s Reservation legislation and the proposed minorities quota have been sabotaged from within the government. Even on foreign affairs, the Congress is not happy with the way the PMO has been dealing with Pakistan and China. On resignations of Union ministers Pawan Bansal and Ashwani Kumar, individuals within the government—and not the party—were telling the media about the disagreement between the PM and Sonia. As the countdown for the General Elections begins, more scuttlebutt would be coming out about the growing chasm between the political establishment and the government leadership. The Congress is determined to prove the point that its objective is not to save the government any cost; its mission is to save the party. In the past, the question of a rift never arose because, since 1978 it was either a Gandhi or the same person who headed both government and party. In 2013, the Congress is more dependent on the Gandhis than ever. Instead of denying the divide, it would enhance the credibility and status of the PM if he admits to genuine conflicts and concedes that it is the will of the Gandhis which will always prevail.
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