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The Rule of Two

The mass leader stays out of power and lets the career administrator run things. The Sonia-Manmohan boat could have floundered on many rocks but on May 22, it will have sailed on for six years. Varghese K George and Saroj Nagi find out how.

india Updated: May 15, 2010 22:59 IST

Sometime in 2006, the leader of a Chinese delegation was holding forth on how the party chief was superior to the prime minister in the communist country. Mani Shankar Aiyar, then a union minister, interrupted to say: “That’s a familiar system for us,” alluding to the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh relations.

Nehru onwards, prime ministers have had the upper hand in relations with Congress presidents and there have been bitter battles between the two offices (see box). Prime ministers fought elections and made party presidents, and from 1980 onwards, the prime minister or the parliamentary party leader also held the post of Congress president. In 2004, Sonia inverted this precedent — though it was she who won the mandate, she chose Manmohan Singh to lead the government. She decided to head the National Advisory Council (NAC), a body of civil society activists, to help policy making. Key Players of UPA-2

“It was something new, and nobody knew where this experiment would go. But they related so well and effectively, that too, despite efforts by various quarters to drive a wedge between the two,” said a senior cabinet minister.

The opposition termed Sonia’s interventions in policy “unconstitutional” and called Singh the “weakest prime minister” and a

History Lesson

In November 1947, J B Kripalani resigned as Congress president complaining that prime minister Nehru was not consulting him; two subsequent party presidents, Rajendra Prasad and B Pattabhi Subbaramaiha played second fiddle to Nehru.
In 1951, prime minister Nehru resigned from the Working Committee, asking the party to choose between his views and those of party president Purushottam Das Tandon. Tandon resigned, Nehru became party president and vacated the post in 1953. Nehru remained the supreme leader of the government and the party until death.
In the 1960s PM Lal Bahadur Shastri was kept on a tight leash by party president K Kamaraj and his syndicate. The syndicate hoped to control Indira Gandhi, whom it made PM in 1966.
She played along initially but trounced them in 1969 and took over the party. He controlled the party through her appointees until 1978, when she became president herself. Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao were party presidents and prime ministers simultaneously.
“puppet.” A senior minister close to both says, “Both had to calibrate each move and measure every word, as they stood to constant scrutiny of propriety and popularity.”

It’s not that there had been no differences between the two (see box). In the Congress there has always been a divide between the Left-of-Centre and Right-of-Centre opinions, which Sonia and Manmohan respectively represent. However, “Sonia’s pet schemes like food security and Manmohan Singh’s focus on growth complement each other,” says Jawaharlal Nehru University historian Sucheta Mahajan.

The real story, therefore, is not how they differ, but how they get along, in such a high-stake power game. It’s something they have managed for a long while already — the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government will complete six years on May 22. HT asked senior Congress leaders, political analysts and social psychologists to try and understand how the equation works.

Division of labour
Sonia manages politics, while Singh focuses on government. Singh concedes that Sonia handles politics better and she concedes that Singh knows governance better. Since it cannot be a watertight separation, as Singh’s policies affect Sonia’s politics and vice-versa, they have put in place systems to brainstorm on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats from each move. Points of divergence

Constant communication
Arriving from Beijing last Monday, environment minister Jairam Ramesh wrote to Sonia Gandhi explaining his comments against the government’s China policy, but stopped short of regretting them. By this time, home minister P Chidambaram too had conveyed his distress over Ramesh’s comments. Sonia phoned Singh to discuss the future course of action. Soon, Singh phoned Ramesh to give him a dressing down while Sonia refused an audience with Ramesh — signalling that it’s the PM’s job to deal with ministers.

Both Sonia and Manmohan picked the team. The current union council of ministers was drawn by them, while Ahmed Patel and T K A Nair waited in the next room. They were called for inputs whenever necessary.

The once-a-week core committee of the PM, the Congress president, Ahmed Patel, Pranab Mukherjee, A K Antony and P Chidambaram is where key issues — of party matters, policies and relations with the allies — are sorted. The deliberations of the core committee are kept under wraps. The committee meets mostly on Fridays. Before which, Sonia and PM usually have a separate one-on-one meeting. Key decisions emerge from such exchanges. For instance, pressing for the passage of the women’s reservation bill or showing Shashi Tharoor the way out. PM and Sonia work on inputs from other senior leaders, but an understanding of each other’s stand point precedes all decisions.

Detached, interdependent
Both Singh and Sonia are, in a way, outsiders to politics and have shown a detachment to conventional power games. “The levels of interdependence are high. Sonia can’t think of anyone else as prime minister if she doesn’t want to become PM herself. He can’t be prime minister on his own. One is a political lightweight but an administrative heavyweight, while with the other it’s the other way around,” says political scientist Zoya Hassan.

Difference in priorities
Party Matriarch: Sonia Gandhi

Promote the aam admi agenda
Keep the domestic political balance on foreign policy issues
Expand the presence of the Congress in states where it is weak
Pass the women’s reservation bill

Scholar King: Manmohan Singh

Promote economic reforms
Push the boundaries on relations with Pakistan and the United States
Keep the regional parties happy as their numbers become crucial in running the government
Do not disturb the delicately balanced numbers in parliament
Deference to each other
Sonia rarely lets the prime minister drive to 10 Janpath for anything other than meetings of the Congress Working Committee (CWC). She makes it a point to call on the PM at his residence. In the initial days of the experiment, when Congressmen were eagerly watching the evolving arrangement, Sonia even used to go to the airport to see off Singh on foreign trips. Both know who the boss is. Both know there is no need to show it. Sonia nipped in the bud several moves within the party to undermine the prime minister. In 2007, she dismissed demands for a deputy PM and snubbed those who asked her to take over after she was re-elected from Rae Bareli following the office of profit controversy.

Woman and Man of letters
Both Singh and Sonia keep their exchanges understated and polite. She has written more than 80 letters to ‘dear prime minister’ in the last six years but only a handful got any media attention. These letters fall in three categories. The first is her wish-list for the government — what to do with the right to education, right to food security, the rehabilitation and resettlement policy for SEZs or judicial reforms. Some letters spell out her opinions — such as opposition to issues like Walmart’s entry into India, a free trade agreement and amendments to the right to information. The third category deals with subjects such as conservation of tigers and rivers. In some cases — such as about FTAs — PM prevails; in some such as amending the right to information act, Sonia prevails. When they can’t agree, they agree to disagree.

The disagreements between them may make news, but what is making history is their agreements.