There are times in politics when friendship and understanding count for much more than policies and principles. The fate of a government often rests on a single relationship. One reason why Tony Blair has had to announce that he will step down within a year is the collapse of his relationship with Gordon Brown, his likely successor. The last BJP government never quite got its act fully together because AB Vajpayee and LK Advani could not decide which emotion was to govern their equation: affection or resentment.
The future of the UPA regime also rests on a single relationship. But, contrary to what you may have read in the papers, it is not the troubled partnership between the Communist parties and the Congress that will determine how long this government can last.
No, there’s only one crucial relationship in this dispensation. And that’s the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Congress president: between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi.
Most of us were surprised when Sonia announced that she would not accept the prime ministership and recommended Manmohan Singh for the job. But we shouldn’t have been. Contrary to the ‘ambitious videshi bahu’ propaganda that has haunted Sonia Gandhi, she has never once shown any willingness to accept public office.
In 1991, when the Congress offered her the prime ministership in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, she was categorical in her refusal. When the party persisted, she turned to PN Haksar, her mother-in-law’s old advisor, who suggested vice-president Shankar Dayal Sharma for the post. When Sharma declined and the old Rajiv loyalists feared that Sharad Pawar might buy his way into Race Course Road, Sonia still refused their entreaties and stuck to her decision. Eventually, she threw her weight behind the seemingly harmless and apparently ailing PV Narasimha Rao.
Narasimha Rao, suddenly energised by the Viagra of unexpected power, then performed a complete pirouette, turning on Sonia and driving the old Rajiv loyalists out of the party. Worse still, he turned his back on decades of Congress secularism and acted as though he was the first BJP Prime Minister of India. The Congress is still paying for Rao’s destruction of its minority base.
Even so, when Sonia Gandhi finally entered politics in 1997, she was still as determined not to accept ministerial office. It has always been suggested that had the Congress been able to form the government after the confidence motion that brought down the first Vajpayee ministry, Sonia would have been Prime Minister. In fact, she had told President KR Narayanan that if she could cobble a coalition together, then Manmohan Singh would be the Prime Minister. (My source for this is Narayanan, and he had no reason to lie.)
Some Congressmen may have suspected that Sonia intended Manmohan Singh to head any future Congress government. This would explain why so many members of his own party conspired to sabotage Manmohan Singh’s one attempt to get into the Lok Sabha from Delhi. And though the political hacks claimed that the defeat had demonstrated Singh’s electoral weakness, Sonia never really changed her mind about him.
Two years ago, on the eve of the declaration of election results, when it seemed possible — but not likely — that the Congress could form the government, Sonia is supposed to have told friends that Manmohan Singh would be the Prime Minister should the results go in the party’s favour.
Certainly, Manmohan Singh confirmed to a US television interviewer that as soon as the results were declared, Sonia called him and told him that he would have to lead the government. (I asked Sonia about this at the HT Leadership Summit. Her response: “You’ll have to wait for my autobiography.” Alert readers will note that this is not a denial.)
Why, then, did Sonia give the impression that she was willing to take the job almost till the last moment? My suspicion is that she was waiting for the UPA coalition to come together before springing Manmohan Singh on the politicos. Had she announced that she was out of the race too soon, then the Lalu Yadavs and M Karunanidhis would have staked their claim. And even within the Congress, there would have been other candidates. (Let’s not forget that when Pranab Mukherjee was Indira Gandhi’s finance minister, he appointed Manmohan Singh Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.)
Why has Sonia always opted for Manmohan Singh? There’s no doubt that Singh is the best Prime Minister we’ve got: erudite, thoughtful and with vast experience of government. But I suspect that his integrity — not just in the financial sense but in his decent, straightforward nature — was the quality that appealed most to a woman who had been stabbed in the back by an old crook like Narasimha Rao.
Once Singh was ensconced at Race Course Road, I waited for the trouble-makers and Narad Munis to do their worst. Many were jealous of the new Prime Minister, some thought they deserved his job, and all of them knew that once they created barriers of suspicion between Gandhi and Singh, they could exploit the situation for their own benefit.
And sure enough, there have been consistent efforts to portray Manmohan Singh as the sort of chap who will cost the Congress its political base because of his lack of understanding of public opinion. Others have suggested that he is ineffectual and that his government is inept. And still others have reminded Sonia that Narasimha Rao brought Manmohan into politics.
Two recent events — either of which could have led to the complete breakdown of the relationship — suggest that the Narad Munis have failed to create a rift between Sonia and Manmohan.
The first is the fiasco of the petrol price hike. It now seems clear that there was a foolish and avoidable miscommunication. The government’s emissary told the Congress president that the hike would not exceed a certain level. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, was given the impression that the Congress had agreed to a bigger hike.
When the Cabinet decision was announced, the party reacted as if it had been betrayed. It would never have agreed to a hike of this magnitude, it said. And the Congress spokesman slammed the government.
Manmohan Singh believed that the party had been in the know and acted as though he was now being betrayed. He dug his heels in, refused to reconsider and his aides planted stories in the press to the effect that he would resign if the full hike did not go through. As far as the media were concerned, it was the principled Prime Minister fighting the venal party. Obviously, this characterisation had the effect of angering Congressmen even more and the opposition to the hike mounted.
Within the party, there were those who wanted Sonia to persuade the Cabinet to roll back part of the hike. That way, she would get all the credit. Manmohan Singh would be upset but he wouldn’t really resign over such a small issue.
It is a measure of the trust between Sonia and Manmohan that even though she had been misinformed, she decided that it was completely unacceptable to ask the Prime Minister of India to reconsider a decision to which he was personally committed. She asked the party to pipe down. And Singh seems to have asked his aides to stop portraying him as a Prime Minister under siege, always reaching for a Kleenex if not a resignation letter.
The second issue is the US nuclear deal. It’s hard to tell where Sonia stands on foreign policy, but certainly, many of this government’s decisions have turned traditional Congress positions on their head. The party was shocked by the vote against Iran, and there is still widespread opposition to the nuclear deal with the US.
One reason why the Congress has fallen in line behind the deal is because the Prime Minister was able to persuade his party president that it was in India’s best interests. Congressmen will tell you that they have been forbidden from criticising the deal and Left leaders say that at meetings of the coordination committee, it was Sonia who personally secured guarantees from them that they would support the deal as it had been originally constructed. (But the Left says it will oppose any changes.)
Consequently, despite the brief phase when the PMO leaked stories about Manmohan Singh’s unhappiness, relations between the Prime Minister and the Congress president have remained marked by closeness and mutual respect.
This does not stop the trouble-makers from keeping at it. Why have vegetable prices gone up despite repeated warnings from the party at steering committee meetings? Isn’t this a measure of the PM’s ineptitude? Why did the PM allow the government to make such a mess of the office of profit controversy that eventually Sonia was left with only two choices: an ordinance to protect her or a dramatic resignation? Isn’t this more proof of ineptitude?
Why does the PM seem unable to expand his Cabinet? And why doesn’t he have the guts to drop a single minister? Surely, Pranab Mukherjee has a right to be called deputy prime minister? So does Arjun Singh, doesn’t he?
But after two years of this kind of carping and moaning, both Sonia and Manmohan have become immune to the trouble-makers. Their relationship remains strong, robust, and full of trust.
As long as it remains that way, this government is safe. The opinion polls suggest that it has defeated anti-incumbency and that the UPA would actually do better if an election was to be held this month. But if this crucial relationship deteriorates then all that could change.