There is a danger of reading too much into Rahul Gandhi’s statement that becoming prime minister is not his priority: In fact, Congress-watchers believe he will eventually be prevailed upon to take up the most important job in the country, should the situation arise.
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What does add heft to Rahul’s statement of reluctance is recent family history. His great-grandfather, grandmother and father may all have been PMs, but his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi walked away from the job in 2004, nominating Manmohan Singh in her stead.
This was appreciated as an act of renunciation but the resulting situation has been criticised: Opposition leader in Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, said on Wednesday “the lack of political authority with the Prime Minister has resulted in a leadership crisis”.
But, whatever its deficiencies, the Sonia-Manmohan combine is set to complete two full terms. So, will Rahul follow his mother’s example? And if he does, who will be his Manmohan?
If Manmohan bows out, going by the current pecking order in the Congress, at least four leaders could make it: P Chidambaram, AK Antony, Sheila Dikshit and Sushil Kumar Shinde.
P Chidambaram: In 2004 he became finance minister after a period outside the Congress fold, which shows the trust he enjoys with the Gandhi family. He is one of the founder members of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. PC’s no-nonsense approach, coupled with the ability to deliver, makes him a strong candidate. However, he is not a mass leader and his uncompromising attitude may work against him.
AK Antony: If his impeccable integrity and ‘Mr Clean’ image are his prime assets, proximity to the Gandhi family is an added advantage.
He is not just the most trusted lieutenant of Sonia Gandhi but also a key figure in her son's camp. He surprised many by proposing Rahul's name as Congress vice-president at the Jaipur conclave. A mass leader, but Antony is often criticised for delaying decisions and not being articulate.
Sheila Dikshit: If Sheila Dikshit retains Delhi at this year's state poll, it will be her fourth straight win and a mammoth achievement by any standards for a Congress CM.
She is a darling of the middle class and urban voters, and shares a close affinity with Rahul. After his emotional speech at Jaipur, Dikshit kissed Rahul's hands and hugged him several times.
Diskhit is by no means a policy maven, though being a woman may work in her favour.
Sushil Kumar Shinde: The Dalit leader from Maharashtra has worked his way up from the bottom of the ranks to form part of the trusted circle of Sonia and Rahul.
He has already been a vice-president candidate, a governor, chief minister of Maharashtra and now, home minister.
But he is not very articulate and despite his administrative experience, has proven to be gaffe-prone. May not be acceptable as PM to Sharad Pawar, who brought Shinde in politics.
The big question, of course, is whether the scenario of anyone other than Rahul heading a Congress-led government will come to pass.
"The Sonia-Manmohan experiment is not something that can be repeated. I think if the Congress is in a position to lead the next government, in all probability Rahul Gandhi will have to be the PM," said political analyst Zoya Hassan.
JNU professor Sudha Pai felt that only if the party formed the government on its own would Rahul himself take over.
"If it doesn't then he will certainly bring in some other person," she said.