Even as the UPA won a second term in 2009, there was speculation that sometime in 2012 there would be a change in the prime ministership. Manmohan Singh would be retired or “kicked upstairs” as Rashtrapati, and the ‘real’ leader, Rahul Gandhi, would be elevated to PM.
That script went terribly wrong with the Uttar Pradesh elections. For all Rahul’s exertions, the Congress came a dismal fourth. The plan to replace the PM with a sinking image looks to have lost steam when the hopes pinned on Rahul also sank. And as the current crisis plays out, the heir apparent is out of the country. His birthday is on June 19 and in an annual ritual crackers are burst at the Congress headquarters at 24, Akbar Road, and a gaggle of workers gather, muster some energy and shout “Rahul Gandhi zindabad”. The birthday boy himself is never present; the regulars at 24 never know where he is, but they all presume he is beyond Indian borders.
Rahul turns 42. But the question of who’s next is the larger existential crisis confronting the Congress. We can surmise that Rahul will not be asked to steer a ship that appears to be sinking. Indeed, there is always the question of whether this dynast really seeks power and has the stomach for the long haul. Does he want the crown or is he just the little prince who likes to make occasional forays among the people before he retires behind the high walls of security and his personal life?
The Mulayam-Mamata duo effectively touched on this raw nerve in the Congress when they suggested that the PM should be considered one of the candidates for president. The Congress has now stated that the PM will continue till 2014 and that there is no question of considering him for the presidency. The simple fact that the Congress continues to show this loyalty towards a leader for whom the party rank and file feels none indicates that there is no easy replacement.
In suggesting Manmohan Singh’s name for the president’s post and ruling out that of Pranab Mukherjee, the M&M duo effectively devalued both men. They implied that the PM should play a lesser role. And since, in the judgement of these heavyweight regional players, Pranab is not good enough to be president, he’s quite obviously not a worthy PM either.
And choices are limited because the man who should have been the natural choice is not ready to shoulder the burden. That is what remains unstated in fine Congress tradition. Like his mother, is Rahul too inclined to enjoy great power without the responsibility of office? Will members of the dynasty not come forward to seize the initiative and try to end the slide?
We can’t ask them because they have set themselves above media scrutiny. We don’t know how Sonia’s health is holding up. We wonder if Priyanka is the real leader in waiting. So we keep shuffling the Congress pack and the same tired old set of names will pop up. And we’ll keep asking: when will Manmohan Singh retire? What’s next for Pranab? The speculation over the dynasty’s frontmen will continue and the real story will stay untold.
Saba Naqvi is political editor, Outlook; E-mail your columnist: saba AT outlookindia.com