The prime minister’s interaction with five editors of his choice on Wednesday could have been his way of sending a clear message to his own party that he was in total control of things and had no immediate plans to step down. The reiteration on Manmohan Singh’s part assumes significance, as there have been some party functionaries who have been obliquely suggesting that the time has come for Rahul Gandhi to take over the top job.
In this context, one has to look at the earlier statements made by Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh and home minister P Chidambaram. On June 19, Gandhi’s birthday, Digvijaya had stated that the 41-year-old Congressman and fellow general secretary was ready and would make a good PM. A few days later, Chidambaram commented that all those above 60 should not be part of the Union Cabinet. In political circles, the two observations were understood to be the party’s signal to the prime minister — who entered his eighth year in his prime ministerial office on May 22 — to see the writing on the wall this year. The perception created was that pressure was being mounted on Singh to step down. Singh’s silence was being seen as his weakness and willingness to ‘toe the party line’.
But with time and experience, Singh has evolved as an astute leader. Since the 2009 Lok Sabha elections victory where he was projected as the prime ministerial candidate by the Congress and the UPA, he has been conscious of the mandate, which was as much for him as it was for the governing UPA. In every press meet since, he has always made it clear that he was in no hurry to step down, and if ‘younger people’ wished, he was willing to take them in his Cabinet. In other words, he was going nowhere and the maximum he could do was to accommodate Rahul Gandhi in his team.
There have also been reports that the relationship between UPA chairperson and Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Singh is not as cordial as it was when the UPA government took over in 2004. There are important functionaries who readily admit that the meetings of the two are not as frequent as they used to be. In addition, the party has been critical of some of the actions of the government, such as the reception given to Baba Ramdev on his arrival in New Delhi when four senior ministers went to receive him at the airport. The party has been setting the agenda and the PM’s silence has been construed as his endorsement of the viewpoint.
But Wednesday’s press meet was probably a method deployed by the PM to change the rules of engagement. Instead of following what the party would say, he has devised a mechanism in which the party may be forced to endorse whatever he says ‘every week’ during his proposed continuation of this interaction process with the media.
On Wednesday, Singh took the ownership of his government’s initiative while dealing with Anna Hazare and Ramdev, thereby disregarding the Congress’ view on the subject. He also, in a lighthearted manner, cautioned his party and its allies that no one wanted a mid-term election. The PM is conscious that a mid-term poll at this stage will be to the detriment of the Congress. So those trying to destabilise him should stop doing so.
There were several options before him if he had wanted to make his views on various subjects public. He could have addressed the nation directly or he could have held a proper press conference. But the new-found method of engagement with the media in a controlled environment is with a clear purpose: to send out the signal to his party that he would be setting the agenda. He knows that the Congress now needs him more than he needs the party. So was Wednesday’s event finally a show of asserting himself?