Millennium Post

Debate on Congress’ diarchy

The debate whether the power sharing experiment between the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has worked in the past 10 years or whether he was a weak prime minister is a futile exercise. In effect, since Sonia Gandhi took over in 1998, she was the only power centre. Her leadership was accepted not only by the Congress but also the allies including senior leaders like the DMK chief Karunanidhi, NCP chief Sharad Pawar and others from 2004 when the UPA was formed at her initiative.

The Congress history shows that there could be no diarchy. Its constitution provides for two different posts of party chief and PM, but in effect, it was the prime minister who was head by the party. After Independence, Nehru and Sardar Patel were the chief contenders for the post of the prime minister, but Nehru won the race with the blessings of Mahatma Gandhi. After the demise of Gandhi and Patel, Nehru became the sole authority and the key to the party’s electoral success, which other leaders recognised. Nehru resigned from the Congress Working Committee when Tandon was elected as Congress president against his wishes in 1950. Tandon quit after a year paving the way for Nehru to occupy both the posts. In 1955 U N Thebar, a lightweight succeeded Nehru followed by Indira Gandhi and Sanjiva Reddy. Kamaraj, known for his famous ‘Kamaraj plan’ became party president towards the end of Nehru’s life. The Machiavellian Tamil leader steered the party after Nehru’s death earning the name of Kingmaker. Nijalingappa followed Kamaraj and after the split in 1969 Indira Gandhi continued the practice of having separate prime minister and president and chose leaders like D K Barooah known for  ‘Indira is India, India is Indira’ slogan. When Indira Congress was born in 1978 she became the president again and later the prime minister when she came back in 1980.

Since then the successive prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao also continued holding both posts. When Sonia Gandhi entered the scene in 1998, the party was in the opposition When the UPA came to power in 2004, she chose an unprecedented and challenging model. She declined the post of prime minister and ‘appointed’ Manmohan Singh as PM but continued to be in the driver’s seat without taking any responsibility of the government while influencing its decisions. From then on, the role was reversed and the party president became the super boss.

The word ‘appointed’ has a special significance because the party amended its constitution to enable Sonia to ‘nominate’ the prime minister. Gandhi chose to have a CEO who was solely responsible to her. Both knew their positions and Singh never crossed the line nor was he allowed to. There was no question of diarchy as Singh publicly acknowledged the supremacy of Sonia Gandhi. The division of labour was clear that Singh would look after the administration and Gandhi would deal with the political side. The question is whether this agreement worked or not. It is yes and no. At least UPA-I worked but not the UPA-II although most scams happened in UPA-I. The Congress core group decided everything. If the government did something wrong, the party would dissociate itself like it did on Baluchistan when PM made a controversial statement in Sharm-e-Sheik. But if the government programmes clicked then the credit would go to Sonia Gandhi and her National Advisory Council. Singh swallowed his objections to the populist policies like the food security bill and went along with Sonia Gandhi. Even on the Indo-US nuclear deal or the FDI or other issues, Singh could succeed only after Sonia Gandhi and the party backed him.

Why did not the reformist prime minister continue the process of reforms? No doubt there were coalition compulsions but was he reticent or did Sonia not allow him a free hand? This debate can go on with many ifs and buts. First, the left allies opposed it in UPA-I and in UPA-II scams took over resulting in policy paralysis. The only thing he insisted and got was the nuclear deal.

Now a third influential pole has emerged as Rahul Gandhi has virtually taken over the party. His supremacy was established in September 2013, when Rahul had termed ‘ridiculous’ an ordinance cleared by the cabinet seeking to give relief to convicted lawmakers. There was indignation that prime minister’s authority was undermined but Singh had to withdraw the ordinance accepting the supremacy of Sonia and Rahul.

Many claim that the scams and lack of governance was due to this diarchy. Singh was in office but not in power. Singh showed some flashes of individuality when he said left was free to leave the UPA but ultimately recalibrated his positions – particularly in relations with the United States, with Pakistan, and economic issues within the overall politics of the Congress party. He shows his aggressiveness when he rebuts the BJP. There are different views within the Congress itself about this power sharing. Some like AICC general secretary Digvijaya Singh claim that it has not worked, while another general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi contradicts him.

As his former media adviser Sanjaya Baru claims, Singh himself had told him that he had to accept party president is the centre of power. Above all, Singh fully realised that his continuance depended entirely on Sonia. If she could appoint, she could also remove him. So he never allowed anything to ruin his relationship with Gandhis. Singh summed it up in a press conference, ‘For me, it has been a remarkable achievement that I have been able to complete 10 years of my prime ministership without any hiccups in the relationship between the Congress party and the prime minister, or for that matter, the government.’ So, what is all this debate about?IPA
Kalyani Shankar

Kalyani Shankar

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