Political games have already started within the Congress and attempts are being made to undermine the position of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It is clear that a number of political heavyweights within the UPA including some belonging to the Congress party have tried to send out a message in the election year that there was a need to project somebody else other than Manmohan Singh for the prime ministership when the parliamentary polls get declared.
The message has been camouflaged to pre-empt stern action by the Congress leadership by suggesting that there was nothing wrong if Rahul Gandhi was projected as the prime ministerial candidate for the next round of polls. The intention is clearly not as much to speak in favour of Rahul Gandhi, the rising star of the party, as it is to show the Prime Minister in poor light. In a way, it is an expression of no confidence of some of the senior leaders in the abilities of the Prime Minister, probably because they are viewing him as a political liability. It maybe recalled that Congress President Sonia Gandhi chose Singh for the job over his more experienced colleagues after she took a decision not to accept the position of Prime Minister herself. This had caused a lot of heart burn but everyone kept quiet since Ms Gandhi had achieved the impossible task of leading the Congress-led UPA alliance to victory over the BJP-led NDA in the 2004 polls.
In the process, some of the leaders had to accept the bitter reality and sit on the sidelines waiting for the right opportunity to move towards their unrealised ambitions. In the meantime, if Manmohan Singh has managed to survive several attacks on him from within his own party, it is primarily because the Congress leadership has stood by him through thick and thin. When hectic lobbying started in 2006 to have a deputy Prime Minister, it was Ms Gandhi who made it abundantly clear that there would be no deputy PM and the party was fully satisfied with the functioning of Manmohan Singh. This put all speculation to rest and the disappointed supporters of a senior minister including some close aides of the Congress president had to beat a hasty retreat.
But many top leaders have not been able to live with the idea of serving under Manmohan Singh whom they regard as a political non-entity and believe that his leadership was not sufficient to take the UPA towards victory in the next polls. Since they also know that the Congress president, given her excellent rapport with the Prime Minister can accept no other name, these leaders are reluctant to put forward their own claim. Therefore, the suggestion that Rahul Gandhi be made the PM candidate is not so much about seeing the young leader as the next PM as much it is to convey to the Congress leadership that the present leader just won’t do.
The Congress is one party where most things are done through signals and hints and not through direct actions. Rahul Gandhi’s name could be a shield to escape disciplinary action but it is evident that some leaders want to convey their views through this kind of politicking.
The Congress leadership recognises what is happening and knows the ramifications of the statement made by senior leader Arjun Singh, that was ably supported by others, including Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi and leaders of the NCP. It was to stall this move, which appeared to be gaining momentum that the Congress leadership decided to send a strong message down the line by issuing a statement read out by spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan. The statement sidetracked the undermining issue and instead tried to confuse the whole exercise with sycophancy. It was stated that the Congress president and general secretary Rahul Gandhi did not approve of any kind of sycophancy.
Another angle in this complex power game in the Congress is that many of the senior leaders are worried about the power equations which are bound to change as and when Rahul Gandhi consolidates his position. Many of the present lot who enjoy immense power at present could be sidetracked in the future. So by pitting Rahul against his mother Ms Gandhi’s choice, the present Prime Minister, his emergence at the top could be put on hold. This would give enough time for the present bunch of established leaders to have their way since a demoralised PM may opt out of the race or keep out of the scheme of things.
While all this intrigue and complex politics is being played out in the Congress and UPA circles, it is to the Prime Minister’s credit that he has maintained a very dignified silence. He has neither allowed the matters to precipitate and nor has he acted in a hasty and immature manner. The senior Congress leaders should thank their stars that the Prime Minister is an apolitical, cultured gentleman. Otherwise he too could have made it into an issue and sacked or censured some of his senior ministers indulging in unbecoming behaviour. In fact, his dignified silence has helped the Congress president to salvage the situation at this point. Both she and the PM know that the UPA boat cannot be allowed to rock at this stage and no amount of cleaver politicking would be permitted to have the better of the leadership.
But the danger is not over as yet. In fact, it will increase, as the polls get nearer. The Congress leadership has to be prepared to take some strong decisions if the need arises. It is not L.K. Advani and the BJP that is calling Manmohan Singh ‘a weak’ Prime Minister but some within the Congress who would want him to appear this way on the eve of the next parliamentary polls. Their attack on the Prime Minister is in a way an attack on the Congress president. Between us.