Believe it or not, it all began with me! Last week, I popped an innocent question to Praful Patel — well, maybe not that innocent but more about that later — and set the ball rolling. However, I had no idea it would develop into a political firestorm. To be fair, Praful was wiser. He knew he had set the cat amongst the pigeons but I doubt if even he could have predicted the full outcome. <b1>
This is how it happened. I fixed an interview with Praful several weeks ago. My original intention was to discuss the problems of civil aviation. However, when the interview materialised I jettisoned the affairs of his ministry in favour of the politics of his party. ‘Why is the NCP taunting Congress?’ was my new subject. It seemed both more pertinent and a lot more interesting.
I accused the NCP of picking on Sonia Gandhi. This was obvious, I maintained, when D Tripathi, its General Secretary, proclaimed the government to be democratic but pointedly added the UPA was not. After all, Sonia is the chairperson of the UPA. But — and here was my coup de grace — it was also the real motivation behind Sharad Pawar’s surprise declaration that the UPA should fight the next elections collectively with Manmohan Singh as its prime ministerial candidate. “What he did, very cleverly and very subtly,” I claimed, “was to undermine Rahul Gandhi’s hopes of leading the next government and perhaps even Sonia Gandhi’s as well.”
This is when it started. Praful rushed to say that the NCP would support either Sonia or Rahul if the Congress, after the next elections, assuming the numbers are on its side, wished to make one or other the next PM: “If tomorrow the Congress decides to nominate Mrs. Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi, it’s not a question for NCP to decide.” When I pressed for further clarification that the NCP would accept “young Mr. Gandhi” as PM, Praful was even more explicit: “The choice of prime ministership of the Congress-led government is not an issue we need to be consulted about.” And when I pushed a third time for a forthright yes, the answer couldn’t have been clearer: “I’m saying it categorically. What more do you want?”
We both knew Praful had given me a headline. Praful actually laughed about it once the cameras were switched off. What neither of us realised was that he had also sparked off a firestorm and, eventually, a controversy. This is where Indian politics took over.
Shortly after the story hit the wires, PTI grabbed the baton and sprinted off. What did Arjun Singh think of Rahul as PM, they asked the HRD minister? He endorsed the idea. Hours later Karunanidhi jumped on the now fast-rolling bandwagon. Next came Sharad Pawar. Speaking from Nagpur, he swallowed his earlier reservations about dynastic rule and plumped for the ‘heir-apparent’. And finally Pranab Mukherjee. Imitating his philosophical style, the news channels proclaimed: “Pranab: always the leadership goes to the youth!”
The only thing I can compare this to is the possibly apocryphal story about Stalin and the applauding audience. Once they had started no one wanted to be the first to stop. So on and on and on they went, clapping till their hands fell off. This is not dissimilar. Once you praise the heir-apparent, others have to join in or be mistaken for dissenters. And such is the family’s power that even leaders of allied parties have to show their support. <b2>
Now that the Congress spokesperson has dismissed this chorus as sycophancy, I wonder what Rahul’s partymen and allies have to say? It puts them in a bit of a dilemma. If they maintain silence, it might confirm the rather ungracious description of them. If they demur, they could add to the confusion.
As for Praful, let me console him with the following lines from Omar Khayyam: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.”