Congress president Sonia Gandhi demonstrated at Nainital that she has evolved into a mature and shrewd political leader, who clearly sees through the designs of some of her party colleagues and those in the Cabinet. She has thus no intention of allowing any of them to destabilise the government in the middle of its five-year tenure. By categorically stating that there would be no Deputy Prime Minister and that she and “all her colleagues” were satisfied with Manmohan Singh’s performance, she drove home the point that there had been no dilution in the relationship of trust she shares with the Prime Minister.
By her statement, she also clarified that she would not allow anyone within the party or the government to create the impression that there would be a number two to Manmohan Singh. Therefore, unnecessary lobbying should stop. There had been reports earlier that Pranab Mukherjee and Arjun Singh, both senior ministers, may be contenders for the position.
Sonia Gandhi realised that a vague or non-categorical response would fan the speculation further. She, in fact, chose to answer the query on deputy prime ministership on behalf of Singh during the press conference held at the end of the Congress CMs’ conclave. Her reply was forthright and made in the presence of the party’s top leadership. Obviously, it was meant primarily for the consumption of her colleagues.
Sonia Gandhi must have realised that if this speculation was allowed to continue, it could lead to a power tussle within the UPA. If Mukherjee and Arjun Singh were perceived to be aspiring for the post, then Sharad Pawar would not hesitate to stake his claim too. It would have needlessly led to a controversy and the government would be shown in poor light.
The appointment of a Deputy Prime Minister might also give rise to the idea that Singh was incapable of handling things on his own. There was also the danger of the deputy becoming ambitious and aspiring for the Prime Minister’s chair. This would, in some ways, be similar to the situation after the 1967 elections, when Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister and Morarji Desai was subsequently appointed Deputy Prime Minister. Their differences contributed to the historic split of the Congress in 1969.
In Nainital, Sonia Gandhi used the interaction with the media to emphasise that in addition to being the Congress chief, she was also the UPA Chairperson. She would, therefore, protect the interests of all her colleagues equally, even if they were not from the Congress. Despite differences with Pawar on previous occasions, she chose to praise him before the media, obviously to dispel any impression that their relationship was sour. It was a political masterstroke.
She displayed that she called the shots so far as a reshuffle in the government was concerned and it was her decision not to allow anyone to be made Deputy Prime Minister. She made it clear that just as she was numero uno in the party, as her nominee and representative, Singh was number one in the government. And, for bringing about any changes in both the organisation and the government, her consent was a prerequisite — the emphasis was on consent and not on consultations.
The remarks were made in the backdrop of moves by a number of senior Congress leaders to create the impression that it would be difficult to win the next elections if Manmohan Singh continued as Prime Minister. When Singh had become the Prime Minister following Sonia Gandhi’s renunciation of the post, Congress leaders had accepted him immediately. But for the past few months, there have been murmurs of him being a ‘political liability’.
Sonia Gandhi’s remarks countered all these political manoeuvres and drove home the point that Singh not only enjoyed the full confidence of the party leadership but was also a political asset for the Congress because of his clean image, unimpeachable integrity and statesmanlike approach. Any attack on him in future would be construed as an attack on the Congress President and, therefore, would not be tolerated.
She also had a clear message for the likes of junior ministers like Jairam Ramesh, who tend to mistake their proximity to some top leaders as a licence to attack anybody. Ramesh had made some controversial remarks on the eve of Singh’s visit to Brazil, and the government had to do a lot of firefighting to salvage the situation. He had earlier even been snubbed by the Prime Minister at a meeting of the CWC for not doing his job properly. Then there was Ajit Jogi, who tried to put the Prime Minister down with his sycophantic remarks that Sonia should take over. Several senior ministers have also sometimes tried to ignore Singh on several occasions.
Sonia, displaying her unflinching support for the Prime Minister, conveyed that any insubordination would not be tolerated. In fact, the message for the entire Cabinet and the party was that Singh was to be given his due respect and no one, however powerful, should try to bypass him. She also conveyed that she valued honesty, which is one of the virtues of the Prime Minister, and would not tolerate any corrupt elements.
The Congress President has come a long way since she entered active politics nearly nine years ago. She also gave indications of a reshuffle in the party “as early as possible”. In fact, the revamping exercise will perhaps alter the existing power equations within the party. She is apparently conscious that the Prime Minister needs to be strengthened, that there has to be a balance between reforms and the concerns of the aam aadmi and a need for a party structure that can deliver. This realisation itself is enough to carry the party and the government forward. Between us.