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King & Jack: Blind Bets On A Poker Pack

The prince of UPA is primed to take over the party, if not immediate prime ministership

King & Jack: Blind Bets On A Poker Pack
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King & Jack: Blind Bets On A Poker Pack
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

If There Is Change

If the 2G heat rises towards the top of the UPA government and there are more adverse remarks from the apex court, then the Manmohan regime could begin to wobble. Whether Rahul Gandhi takes over midstream carries a question mark. In the current atmosphere, these are some of the straws in the wind.

  • P. Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee are now ruled out even as stand-in PMs, keeping the seat warm for Rahul Gandhi
  • A clean and non-controversial leader like defence minister A.K. Antony could well be
    elevated; but being a Christian does not help
  • With assembly elections due in Uttar Pradesh, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, a Dalit, is also being mentioned but is “no match” for Mayawati
  • Given the upcoming assembly polls in Punjab, the Congress could weather the storm and continue to bank on Manmohan’s integrity
  • Rahul Gandhi may initially just take charge of the party but is the eventual PM-in-the-making either before or if UPA wins the 2014 polls.

If Things Remain The Same

If the UPA successfully combats the 2G legal battle, then allies like Mamata Banerjee will continue to pull at the leash but will not pull the government down. The task would then be to check food and fuel inflation, meet public expectations on anti-corruption.

  • Given the infighting in the BJP among its senior leaders and the legal shadow over Narendra Modi’s future vis-a-vis the riot cases, the Congress could maintain status quo and hope for the best
  • Manmohan could continue as PM beyond UP poll verdict but party makes it clear he won’t head government if UPA wins 2014
  • Party may be given clear signals that Rahul Gandhi will take over in 2014, by making him working president and taking on Sonia’s key functions within the party organisation
  • The presidential elections, due in 2012, could be used to assuage injured egos in the party
  • Congress will expect Sonia Gandhi to focus even more on aam aadmi issues that have not really worked in UPA-II.

***

Is coronation day actually upon us? Members of the grand old party say the signs are there, and all the straws in the wind suggest that the time has come for the passing of the baton to another generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family. His apprenticeship is over, and Rahul Gandhi is readying for a greater role in national politics. One could well dismiss this as the recurrent Congress fantasy of being saved by the members of the dynasty after a year of merciless pummelling and decline. But people who either possess knowledge or understanding say that the fantasy may soon come to fruition. Sonia Gandhi will shoulder less responsibility and Rahul will increase his load. There are even whispers of Priyanka being “more active than before” in the Uttar Pradesh polls. The only caveat: just three people—Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka—know the details. Even the more powerful Congress leaders plead ignorance. “Be patient and you shall soon find out, as shall we,” they joke at the party’s national headquarters at 24, Akbar Road.

So, what exactly are the pointers to this generational change? On November 21, there is a Youth Congress convention in Delhi. For six years, Rahul has been trying to revive the party’s youth wing, the organisational elections for the state units of which are finally ending. Anything that happens will be after the youth convention. The most likely scenario is that there will be the usual clamour for Rahul to take over and subsequently a meeting of the Congress working committee will be called to make him working president. However, as a senior leader says, “For all practical purposes, he has already begun working as the party president. It’s now just a matter of timing. The when and how remain unclear.”

“Rahul Gandhi has, for all practical purposes, already started working as the party president,” says a Congress leader.

But there is another possibility that depends on what sort of observations the Supreme Court makes about home minister P. Chidambaram on the 2G case. The judgement was reserved on October 10 and can come anytime, with a day’s notice. It could very well be a mild opinion in which case the government will continue to totter along. But should the court make harsh observations about Chidambaram’s role, it could force the home minister to resign and thereby trigger a crisis for UPA-II. If Chidambaram burns, the heat is sure to transmit to the PM, who has so far managed to stay out of the 2G noose. There are further bad omens for Chidambaram. Pending before the Madras High Court is the case challenging his election. It was filed by AIADMK candidate R.S. Kannappan who lost to Chidambaram in the controversial Sivaganga parliamentary poll in 2009. No date has been given for the next hearing, but the AIADMK is said to have a good case.

It is, however, the 2G scandal which continues to be the yawning abyss before UPA-II. The issue has already increased divisions in the government. The spat between Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and Chidambaram has already become public. But well-placed sources also say that the PM has been told how the home minister deliberately put out stories to clear his role in the 2G affair and direct the heat at the cabinet secretariat and the PMO. The serious breakdown of trust at the top echelons of this government continues.

Perhaps that is why the names of Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and defence minister A.K. Antony have begun to circulate in political circles as possible replacements for Manmohan Singh. It can happen, though, only in extreme circumstances, say Congress leaders. Meira Kumar is touted as a Dalit woman but “what sort of challenge can she give to a Mayawati?” asks a Congressman. “So, the idea is bogus.” The first family certainly trusts A.K. Antony, but Sonia is always loath to attract any attack on her Christian origins, and Antony’s elevation would inevitably invite comments about “Rome raj” from the right wing. Which is why Congress leaders say that another leader can at best be a stopgap arrangement until Rahul takes over. Besides, as a senior Congress leader says, “A prime minister is not removed and changed mid-term unless some sort of crisis takes place.”


2G test Will Chidamabram pass?. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

That said, it’s no secret either that the party has never been big on actually defending the PM. And now that Manmohan Singh has lost his USP in the last two years of scams and soaring prices, the party would hardly shed tears if an alternative is found. At this point, however, there is no question of an abrupt termination of service. After all, the Punjab elections are round the corner and he is somewhat of a symbol of pride for the Sikh community. “The question of Sonia telling him quietly to quit on some pretext or the other is also not workable without a reason as he is privy to too much information and cannot just be ordered to go,” says a senior leader. “That would only undermine the office of the PM.” Spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi clarifies: “Such analyses and scenarios are done everyday and in a democracy you are free to speculate. But at this point only the Congress president would know if any changes are to happen, and she has shared no such information with any of us.”

Yet, Congress leaders do admit that the spreading taint of the 2G scam can be the trigger for the end of Manmohan’s tenure although UPA-II would survive. There is a strong view in the Congress that should a full-blown crisis develop, then the possibility of Rahul taking over the prime ministership cannot be ruled out. There would be two calculations behind this—to revive the government’s image with the ‘Nehru-Gandhi magic’ and to ensure that even if the UPA were to lose the next general election, Rahul would always get the security reserved for a former PM for the rest of his life. Given the family history, it is understandable that security is a big concern for Sonia and Priyanka. As Rahul takes centrestage, they would also want him safe.

The winter session of Parliament that starts on November 22 also promises to be a volatile one. Deliberations over the Lokpal bill will no doubt dominate, and the pressure will resume on the government. None of the UPA allies are likely to pull the plug on the government, though. Two parties who do have the numbers to pull down the UPA—the BSP and the SP—both have cases against them being investigated by central agencies. They would, therefore, like to use some leverage in Delhi.

Which is why a senior leader from one of the UPA alliance parties says that “nothing will come of anything. At different times, different leaders of smaller parties will huff and puff, but it is unlikely that the house will fall down.” The allies also believe that all the signals of Rahul taking over or a change of the PM are being sent out deliberately to keep the PM on tenterhooks.

The allies also believe that the expectation that Rahul will be elevated to a greater role is also linked to the need to insulate him from whatever the result of the Uttar Pradesh elections may be. If the party does well, then Rahul can very well take the credit. However, if the Congress were to suffer a debacle, he would continue to be projected as a national leader. While there are certainly plans afoot for Rahul, the PM’s survival actually depends on forces out of the control of the party and the government.

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