The Jinxed Handover

Sonia Gandhi was expected to turn Congress leadership over to Rahul Gandhi. The failure to do so explains much of the mess the party now finds itself in
Suspended Animation
 BE IT Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said over and over again that he is ready to make way for Rahul Gandhi (Photo: ISHAN TANKHA)

It would have been a feeling of déjà vu, had the enormity of the crisis gripping India and its government not got compounded. A year ago, as fiscal 2011-12 began, the country was in a state of gloom. Now, as we begin the financial year 2012-13, the mood is gloomier still. If ‘policy paralysis’ was the catchphrase to describe the Government’s mode of operation back then, ‘political coma’ is the label most apt for the Congress and UPA’s state of existence now.

The only investment that appears to have grown is the bad political capital that the Congress-led UPA Government has earned since it was re-elected to power in May 2009. Ironically, it was five years earlier, after the Congress’ 2004 Lok Sabha victory, that Congressmen first started making noises about Rahul Gandhi taking over the party’s leadership from Sonia Gandhi. Eight years later, it has not happened. This speaks of the Congress President’s failure to hand over charge and hold her son responsible for his actions in the political arena, which, coupled with her reluctance to grant Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the space he needs to do his job effectively, explains much of the mess India’s ruling party is now in.

For both the Congress and UPA, nothing has looked up since its 2009 win. In fact, its biggest achievement since that election has been winning that election. Beating anti-incumbency, the Congress raised its Lok Sabha tally from 145 to 206 seats and widened its lead over its principal challenger, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which slid from 139 to 116. A 90-seat gap between the leading party and the runners-up should’ve assured it a clear edge, but the Congress has frittered that away. Scam after scam and session after session of Parliament, the Congress seems to find it harder to function, strapped as it is with faulty coalition management and a misplaced analysis of its own strengths and weaknesses. With the same linear logic that it had applied to recent state elections—that each time Rahul Gandhi’s helicopter lands for an election rally, a contest would be won—the Grand Old Party set out assuming that if it could gain 61 seats over the UPA’s first term (2004–2009), it could gain at least as many over its second term to emerge with a clear Lok Sabha majority of its own in the General Election of 2014.

Once that delusion took hold, its coalition partners began to feel like a burden. As the party began its slow transition from the leadership of Sonia Gandhi to that of Rahul Gandhi, ‘coalition dharma’ started turning into ‘coalition compulsions’. Demands for this transition had reached a crescendo at the party’s Hyderabad Plenary, held in 2006 to chalk out an all-India revival plan. But while the young Gandhi’s heady ambition of a go-it-alone Congress made enough partymen giddy (and others acquiesce to it without a squeak), he is yet to formally take charge from his mother. Despite her illness and diminishing role in party affairs, Sonia Gandhi is still Congress President. Despite his lack of leadership skills beyond the field of economics, Manmohan Singh is still Prime Minister. And despite his energy and enthusiasm—on display at as many as 211 rallies held in UP, even if his party won only 28 seats—Rahul Gandhi is still the leader who can do no wrong; his party holds him responsible only for a few abstract successes in democratisation of the party’s youth outfits.

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The UPA-I led by a Congress with fewer Lok Sabha seats was a far more formidable electoral force, thanks to the strength it drew from its allies, than the current UPA-II with each constituent pulling the coalition in a different direction. From the goings on of the past week or so, here is just a glimpse of its woes.

From the south, the K Karunanidhi-led Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) threatened to pull out its ministers from the Government over human rights violations in Sri Lanka. This, in the midst of the crucial Budget Session of Parliament. From the east, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has thrown a spanner in the wheel that erstwhile Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi had barely started moving to drag the Indian Railways out of its financial morass. In doing so, she has set off chaos in the UPA and posed problems for her own party. The sheer pace at which she has accumulated bad capital in the past few days may well have put the Congress to shame. It just so happens that the Grand Old Party remains the national champion in shooting itself in the foot.

Banerjee’s tantrum, demanding that her nominee Trivedi be sacked just moments after he presented the Union’s fare-raising Railway Budget (a financial necessity, as he argued, and the first in ten years), resulted in the unedifying spectacle of a minister being replaced even while his proposals were still under discussion in Parliament. Worse, it spelt humiliation for the PM. Last July, after Banerjee was elected CM of West Bengal, she had proposed Mukul Roy’s name for the post. The PM had then insisted on keeping Roy out of the Union Cabinet for his past refusal as Minister of State for Railways to visit the site of a major rail accident in Assam; he was merely an MoS, Roy had said, it was the PM who held that portfolio. After that incident, Manmohan Singh promptly made him MoS for shipping, a less significant role. Now, in submitting to Banerjee’s demand for Roy’s appointment as head of the Railway Ministry, the PM has had to swallow both principle and pride.

It was a situation made for a BJP mockery fest. “Is it not correct that the Prime Minister and Finance Minister had blessed the Rail Budget presented by Trivedi?” asked the BJP’s Balbir Punj in a Rajya Sabha discussion on the Rail Budget, “Should these two not be questioned?” Indeed, having praised Trivedi for his budget, why did the PM fail to convince Banerjee of its merits? And if he had to yield to her switch, could he not have done it with enough subtlety to keep it from becoming such a public fiasco?

Banerjee, meanwhile, has declared that she remains part of the UPA, and that her party will only leave if it is thrown out. The Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, targets of harsh Congress attacks in UP’s electoral battle just a few days ago, continue to provide the UPA external support in the Lok Sabha. If the TMC pulls out at some stage, there are signs that the SP will jump to join the Government. Given the arithmetic, the UPA could well survive till the end of its tenure in power. But if this would be in a state of suspended animation—if the Government will neither fall nor function—is there any purpose?

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Is the PM keen to revive governance? It does not show. On display, instead, is his humiliation. Fielding media queries outside Parliament, Banerjee added insult to his injury by telling a reporter: “If Sonia Gandhi can decide who will be Prime Minister from her party, why can’t I decide who will be Railway Minister from my party?”

Given Manmohan Singh’s past willingness to grin and bear it, he would probably shrug off that slight. The only time he displayed a sense of resolve was in 2008, when he refused to bow to the UPA-I’s Left Bloc allies on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. On most other issues, he seems willing to let go of principles in the name of “coalition compulsions”, now a wind-up-and-replay phrase in every speech he makes to have his helplessness masquerade as justification.

The Manmohan Singh Government’s prioritisation of power over principle was apparent most starkly during the shady cash-for-vote episode of July 2008, when the UPA won a Lok Sabha vote of confidence under appalling circumstances. Nor has the Centre’s conduct over the 2G spectrum and Commonwealth Games scams done it any credit. Its smug handling of the Anna agitation and Lokpal Bill has been no better, exposing its penchant for dirty tricks.

But then, can you blame the PM alone? He was never much of a leader of the party anyway, and since 2009, his leadership of the UPA Government has been slipping away as well. That he owes his position to Sonia Gandhi’s ‘inner voice’ has never been in doubt. That was in 2004, after the Congress President led her party to victory at the hustings. But over the past few years, Manmohan Singh’s image as a stand-in PM until Rahul Gandhi himself is ready has only been strengthened by every utterance of the PM to that effect.

It is all very well in the Congress scheme of things for a leader to show unquestioned loyalty to the first family of the party, but when a PM does it, he puts the authority of the position at stake. The result is that despite his credentials as an economic reformer (in the 1990s) and head-of-government re-elected for a second term (more than a decade later), he has been hamstrung since 2009. He was neither allowed to appoint a finance minister of his choice, nor a principal secretary. And now, he has had to offer the Railway Ministry to a man whose candidacy he had earlier overruled for insubordination.

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Voters in the recently concluded elections have shown that they are not as fond of the Gandhi Dynasty as the Congress would like to believe. Ironically, both in UP and Punjab, where the party has faced its worst defeats, the winners have been rival parties with their own dynasties. What’s notable is that both Akhilesh Yadav and Sukhbir Singh Badal have emerged from the shadows of their fathers after years of apprenticeship. The junior Badal, who is president of the Shiromani Akali Dal, is 51 years old now, but has not been able to take over from his father as Punjab CM. The junior Yadav is also the president of his party, in UP, and his rise to the state’s chief ministership has been enabled by an acknowledgement that he played a big role in the Samajwadi Party’s winning 224 of the state’s 403 Assembly seats. There is little evidence that voters are against dynasties per se. What they want is for them to deliver.

The senior Yadav is both ageing and ailing now, and parallels with Sonia Gandhi’s failing health are more than apparent. Yet, the Congress lets its heir apparent Rahul Gandhi busy himself with what he fancies, instead of insisting on his playing upfront for the highest stakes in politics. The longer it takes the junior Gandhi to assume full charge of his party, the more painful this elongated transition is likely to be.

After the Congress’ UP electoral flameout, Rahul Gandhi did declare that since he had led the campaign, the responsibility for the defeat was his. However, his party and mother were quick to blame the lack of organisation in UP for the lousy showing. But isn’t that what Rahul Gandhi had laid down in the party’s 2006 plenary: his plan to rebuild the organisation in states like UP and Bihar?

Today, that sounds like empty rhetoric, while the Congress dream of securing a majority on its own seems like a joke. This is a party that can’t even decide who the boss is: the party president who decides who the PM should be, or the general secretary who decides how the party should try regaining states like UP and Bihar? Despite the UP failure and threat to the coalition, the party’s apex body, the Congress Working Committee, which was quick to pass a resolution congratulating Rahul Gandhi for his efforts in the party’s 2009 success, has not even met.

While Sonia Gandhi, who is under medical treatment for an undisclosed illness, is largely indisposed these days, Rahul Gandhi is on an overseas trip. And Manmohan Singh—you guessed it—is busy talking of ‘coalition compulsions’ as an explanation for all that his government has been unable to do.