In a democracy, the call on who may succeed an incumbent remains pertinent at all times. There was the question of after Nehru, who? And so it has been with all leaders. Therefore, it’s almost a necessity to ask the same of Manmohan Singh.
On the face of it, the answer is not difficult. Each political party is looking for leaders who are young, who are close to the average age of the country. Leaders who are evolving with the times, are credible and can carry the party with them. In this context, if there is anyone who can fill the shoes of Manmohan Singh after he goes, it is Rahul Gandhi.
The AICC general secretary carries the burden of a great legacy, that of the Nehru-Gandhi family. But if anything, it’s made his claim more formidable. He is a two-time Lok Sabha MP from Amethi and, at 39, he is the only national leader of the next generation in sync with the demographics of this country.
The choices get voices
As with Rahul in the Congress, almost every party is pushing younger people to leadership roles. The roles for the children of the current generation of leaders are becoming clearer.
The National Conference has installed Omar Abdullah, 39, as chief minister in Kashmir. The Akalis are looking at Sukhbir Badal, 47, who is deputy chief minister of Punjab. Sharad Pawar and Purno Sangma have brought in their daughters — Supriya Sule, 40, and Agatha Sangma, 29 — on to the centrestage. M. Karunanidhi is looking at son M.K. Stalin, 57, as his successor in Tamil Nadu. In Maharashtra, there is a battle to corner the Sena votebank between cousins Raj, 41, and Uddhav Thackeray, 49. Mulayam has chosen son Akhilesh, 36, to be the future face of Samajwadi Party. Even the BJP felt compelled to give a ticket to Varun Feroze Gandhi, 30. The average age of leaders is set to drop all over.
Rahul’s shot at prime ministership will depend on two important factors. One, the Congress has to lead the next government or be the largest entity in the coalition. Two, Rahul himself has to be willing to occupy the position. What’s certain is that in either scenario he will be a strong contender, or at least be a kingmaker like his mother, Sonia.
If the two factors are met, and Rahul becomes PM, the duality of roles at the Centre will end. He may become the first Congress President since P.V. Narasimha Rao to also head the Union government.
Way to the throne
Whether he accepts the top leadership or not, the AICC general secretary has his eyes firmly on the long-term health of the party. No other party leader is seen working so much to strengthen it at the grassroots. At the heart of Rahul’s efforts is his desire to revive his party in Uttar Pradesh, which returns 80 MPs to Lok Sabha and where the Congress once ruled. He has also breathed new life into the youth and student wings of the party.
And in choosing this route, Rahul has played by the rules of the family in which everyone — Nehru downwards — was first a key functionary within the organisation.
Rahul’s detractors say he has not made his mark in Parliament, that he is reluctant to intervene in major debates. The reason for this is obvious. An intervention by him could be interpreted as either an indictment of the government, or his view on its functioning. Either way, it could create an embarrassing situation. Since it is a government headed by his party, he has never hesitated to publicly praise the Prime Minister or lend support to his programmes.
If Rahul decides to wait a little longer, his party’s choice will lie within the current generation. The top contenders for the top post could be Pranab Mukherjee, the most experienced politician in Parliament, P. Chidambaram, the articulate home minister, A.K. Antony, a strong party loyalist, and Sushil Kumar Shinde, the most capable and acceptable Dalit leader in the party since Babu Jagjivan Ram.
For the moment, however, Skipper Singh has his hands securely on the steering wheel.