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The Man in the Middle

I would be surprised if Manmohan Singh is not the Congress’s candidate for prime minister. Though Pranab Mukherjee is a brilliant and super-competent minister, he will always remain the party’s second choice after Manmohan, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 26, 2009 01:43 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Along with every reader of this column, I wish the Prime Minister a speedy recovery. It is ironic that the man who has the best heart of any Indian politician should have to undergo a second round of open heart surgery. But the doctors tell us that the operation is relatively routine and Manmohan Singh should be fully back in action in a month or so.

Nevertheless, his illness raises many questions about the prime ministership and the future. The first and most obvious one is: will he be the Congress’s candidate for prime minister the next time around?

The answer is that it depends entirely on him. It is possible that he is tired of the strains and stresses of the job and does not believe that his health will withstand another spell at Race Course Road. My guess — from what little I know of him — is that he will first take this position but that if the party insists, he will reconsider and agree to be the face of the Congress’s election campaign.

And I have no doubt that the party will insist. One of the mistakes many political commentators make in assessing Dr Singh’s tenure at South Block is that they misunderstand the nature of the relationship between Sonia Gandhi and him.

Contrary to media speculation, Sonia did not suddenly decide to refuse the Prime Ministership and Manmohan was not a last minute choice. Ever since she entered politics, Sonia has been very clear about not wanting to be prime minister. And Manmohan Singh has always been her choice for the job.

After the no-confidence motion that felled the Vajpayee government, when it looked as though the Congress would form the government — the famous “we have 272” moment — Sonia told President K.R. Narayanan that Manmohan Singh would be the Congress’s choice for prime minister. (My source for this is Narayanan.) As it turned out, Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh acted as BJP agents and scuppered that opportunity. But Sonia’s faith in Manmohan Singh remained unaffected.

This time around, she was as clear that she would not accept the job, but wisely, kept her counsel. She was concerned that if she announced her unavailability for the prime ministership too early, the various components of the UPA coalition would demand the job for themselves. That’s why she waited till the end before saying that she thought Manmohan Singh was the best man for the job.

But Manmohan Singh knew that he was her choice for prime minister. Days before she made her public announcement, she called him in and explained what she intended to do. He was apprehensive but quite willing to take the job. As he had said to me in an interview in 1997, “Who doesn’t want to be prime minister?”

Since then, the Prime Minister has proved to be his own man in office. Despite the media caricatures, he has not been a puppet but has functioned with authority, conviction and sometimes, with a stubbornness that borders on the obsessive. Each time, Sonia has backed him to the hilt.

For instance, it was Manmohan Singh who opted to stick with the PDP and the Muftis in Kashmir even though Ghulam Nabi Azad had wanted to tie up with the Abdullahs. Even this time around, the Congress would have gone with the PDP if the numbers had been right, because of Manmohan Singh’s belief that it was better to have Mehbooba in office than in opposition.

Similarly, the Cabinet has remained Manmohan Singh’s domain. Many ministers (Ashwini Kumar and perhaps Kapil Sibal, for instance) are his personal choices. Even his reluctance to drop ministers is his own. If the party had its way, the reshuffles would have been much bloodier affairs.

Nor has the party been able to make any difference to the way in which he staffs the administration. Two years ago, when the Congress blamed a spate of media stories about the rift between Manmohan and Sonia on the PMO’s media set-up, Manmohan Singh defended his people and refused to consider a sacking, preferring a gentle fade-out.

Similarly, M.K. Narayanan’s survival is entirely due to Manmohan Singh’s support. When the Working Committee met in the aftermath of the Bombay attacks, it was decided that heads would have to roll. Manmohan Singh supported the sacking of Shivraj Patil (who he had been annoyed with for months) and went along with the removal of Vilasrao Deshmukh. But the party also asked for Narayanan’s head, and when Manmohan Singh kept quiet, it was generally assumed that he had agreed.

Accordingly, party managers briefed the media that Narayanan was on his way out. That accounted for the early reports of the National Security Advisor’s dismissal. But Manmohan Singh took the line that his silence should not be construed as assent and refused to touch Narayanan. A compromise was worked out whereby Narayanan would cede control of intelligence to the new Home Minister P. Chidambaram, but would continue to be National Security Advisor. Contrary to speculation, Narayanan’s survival was not due to any mythical relationship with Sonia Gandhi. It was entirely Manmohan Singh’s decision.

But the best example of Manmohan Singh’s clout is the saga of the nuclear deal. It is no secret that when the deal was first broached, Sonia Gandhi and much of the Congress party remained unconvinced of its merits. It was Manmohan Singh who persuaded Sonia and then, his other colleagues that it was the best thing for India.

Nor is it a secret that later, when the Prime Minister staked the future of the government on the deal, there was a great deal of opposition within the Congress. Even those who supported the deal did not believe that it was worth losing the government over.

The first time, Manmohan Singh went along with this consensus. (This was when he told the HT Summit that he would be disappointed if the deal did not go through but “it will not be the end of life”.)

But he believed in the deal anyway and reached out to Amar Singh and the Samajwadi Party — who were then well hated within the Congress — on his own initiative. When they agreed to come on board, he pressed ahead with the deal. Because the numbers were still not right, many Congress managers thought this was a needless risk. But Manmohan made it clear that if the deal did not go through, he would quit.

So the Congress overcame its reservations and scurried to find the requisite number of MPs.

How many Prime Ministers have the moral authority to force their parties to do something for which there is no real political support? The manner in which Manmohan Singh pushed the Congress into getting the nuclear deal through offers some indication of both his clout and the esteem in which Sonia Gandhi regards him.

Even now, the PMO works completely independently of the party and is protected by the Prime Minister from all kinds of political interference. Senior Congressmen fret and fume. They complain that the Principal Secretary lacks the competence of, say, Brajesh Mishra. They regard the current Private Secretary as a pompous ass and a lightweight. They bitch about the PMO’s lack of political savvy. But none of these criticisms makes the slightest difference. Manmohan Singh always stands by his people.

So I would be very surprised if Manmohan Singh is not the Congress’s candidate for prime minister. There are very few other contenders in any case. Rahul Gandhi does not want the job and neither does his mother. Both are active supporters of the Prime Minister. (It was Rahul’s vocal advocacy of the nuclear deal that shut up the Congress critics.) And though Pranab Mukherjee is a brilliant and super-competent minister, he will always remain the party’s second choice after Manmohan.

When the Prime Minister emerges from his convalescence, he will find that nothing has changed. The job is still his to turn down. And now, he can put his heart into it.

First Published: Jan 24, 2009 22:38 IST