Millennium Post

Race for the next Prime Minister

Strange as it may seem, it is not always difficult to pinpoint the moment when a politician’s downfall begins. For instance, in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s case, it was the time when he allowed himself to be persuaded by L K Advani, Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley and others not to sack Narendra Modi after the 2002 Gujarat riots. The result of this misjudgment was the BJP’s defeat in the general election two years later, as Vajpayee himself acknowledged.

In Manmohan Singh’s case, it is his dithering in the matter of dismissing Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Bansal, soon after the law minister earned the Supreme Court’s ire and the railway minister’s nephew became involved in a scam. The delay of a week in sacking them is likely to spell doom for the prime minister’s political career. Till this blunder, it seemed possible that Manmohan Singh would be the party’s choice for heading the government not only till the next general election, but even if UPA-III is lucky enough to come to power in 2014. In fact, on his way back from the BRICS summit in South Africa, he hinted at this possibility when talking to media personnel on the plane.

But, now, the prospects have dimmed. The belief that he was shielding the two ministers to save his own skin, especially in the coal scam, has hurt his image of being an upright person. And, since honesty has become a much-prized commodity in a time of scams, the cloud over Manmohan Singh has damaged his chances. As a result, attention will now turn to the next incumbent. Rahul Gandhi will obviously by the first choice of both Sonia Gandhi and the party members. However, it is possible that Sonia’s ‘inner voice’ will again tell her that her son is still not ready for the job.

The doubts about his capabilities would not have arisen if the UPA had been riding high. But, considering that the alliance might just make it past the winning post – if at all – entrusting its future in the hands of a relatively inexperienced prime minister might seem foolhardy. The delay in his anointment will be only to ensure that he takes over at a time when the going is good, and not when it is rough. Therefore, as in 2004, Sonia is likely to look for another ‘accidental’ prime minister, the word used by Manmohan Singh to describe his own ascent.

Arguably, P Chidambaram is the right man to play the regent till the prince comes of age – in terms of political and administrative maturity. The finance minister’s recent observation that he lacked the ‘ambition’ to be the prime minister would have been appreciated in the palace. It is always dicey if the man who is expected to keep the seat warm for someone else develops grandiose illusions about himself. Besides, there is another reason why Chidambaram, who was mentioned by The Economist as a possible prime minister quite some time ago, is the best man for the job in Manmohan Singh’s absence.

As is known, the economy is still wobbly. The only person who can be trusted by the domestic and foreign investors to revive it is the finance minister. Neither Sonia nor Rahul can earn the confidence of the business community. The Congress president may have trimmed some of her socialist baggage. But, the lessons in playing to the gallery which she learnt as a bahu in Indira Gandhi’s household haven’t yet worn off. Moreover, her sycophantic party still subscribes to the outdated ideology, less out of conviction than because of the belief that it will bring them closer to the Leader.

Rahul’s views on the subject are apparently still unformed. He may no longer want to scupper investments in mineral rich areas, as in Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills, as energetically as before when he wanted to be the foot soldier in Delhi for the tribals who are still hewers of wood and drawers of water. But, he has never clarified where exactly he stands in the debate between market-oriented and tax-and-spend populist policies. However, his support for FDI in retail is a welcome sign, as was his earlier backing of the nuclear deal, which might have been scuttled by Sonia Gandhi who said that the communists had a point in their opposition to the measure. It was only the fortuitous switching of sides from the Left to the government by a scared Mulayam Singh Yadav, who was then running away from a resurgent Mayawati, which saved the deal by bolstering the government’s majority.

If Manmohan Singh walks into the sunset after the 2014 elections, there may not be widespread regret among the corporate czars or the ordinary people. While the former were disillusioned by his inability to take decisions – hence the policy paralysis – the laymen were put off by the impression of weakness that he gave out. IPA
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