For an apolitical person, he has been loaded with a great deal of political responsibility. He is negotiating two of the three most important alliances undertaken by the Congress: with the DMK in Tamil Nadu and the NCP in Maharashtra. He is a member of every important election committee set up by Sonia: on political affairs, the manifesto, alliances, strategy and fund-raising. He also keeps an eye on Kashmir and Northeast affairs. All this, apart from being a Congress Working Committee member and head of the AICC Economic Affairs cell, as well as Sonia’s counterpart in the Rajya Sabha—leader of Opposition.
Quite a comeback, considering just a year-and-a-half ago, when his Rajya Sabha term ended (his ‘good man in politics’ swing at the South Delhi LS seat in ’99 having come a cropper), there was speculation about his withdrawal from politics. But Sonia gave him a fresh term.
"The nitty-gritty of the alliances will be worked out by others, but Manmohan is the face she is projecting," says a CWC member. He is squeaky clean, beloved of the middle-class and an economist (at a time when all political players are getting crash courses in Economics 101, the most basic course). Like Sonia, he is politically not so savvy, reclusive and morbidly afraid of the media. Unlike her, he’s acceptable across the board. Says the NCP’s Praful Patel: "There are no negatives about Manmohan".
The RJD too has no problems with Manmohan Singh. RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh points out that as Sonia’s most trusted lieutenant, he’s been assigned the task of initiating dialogues with like-minded parties because he brings a soft reasonableness to the process of negotiations. "The main issue at hand is dislodging the BJP-led NDA alliance. Any PM candidate projected by the Congress is alright," he adds. So, in the event that Sonia is not acceptable as PM to the other allies, party MPs say he could well be her chosen nominee.
The Congress will not project Manmohan before the election; his role is clearly that of a backup. "If they project him openly, there will be opposition from within his own party. Rivals would do their best to pull him down," points out political scientist Yogendra Yadav of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Besides, the BJP would turn their campaign around into a "Vajpayee versus Manmohan" affair, to the clear disadvantage of the political novitiate. In a mass media-driven environment, not putting a face to an election campaign is a huge drawback. But it is better than exposing Manmohan to the BJP’s media maestros. In any case, when the Congress is focusing on unemployment, industrial closure, the disinvestment "sellout" and the raw deal for kisans, it would be a little awkward to project the patron saint of globalisation as its nominee for PM.
But has Sonia opted out of the prime ministerial contest? In Mumbai, laying the groundwork for a non-BJP front, she declared: "Who gets to be PM will be decided by the people. The Congress does not and will not impose its leadership on others and say who should head which party". An ambiguous withdrawal clearly aimed at potential alliance partners.
Says the NCP’s Patel: "The Congress has said it will not project her as candidate for PM. By implication, she is out of the prime ministerial race". A radical departure from its stance in Shimla where it insisted that potential partners would have to accept her as candidate for PM. The party’s rout in December’s assembly elections perhaps forced a rethink.
On the record, DMK leader M. Karunanidhi says the issue will be decided only after the elections. For the DMK, the foreigner issue is of no concern so it did not ask for any commitment from the Congress emissaries on the prime minister question. But the party was told that no leader would be imposed on the alliance. However, the MDMK has a different take on the issue. Says party leader K. Thirunavukkarasu: "We are with the DMK. But not projecting Sonia as the candidate is just a tactic. We all know who our prime ministerial candidate is. But we will play into the BJP’s hands if we keep discussing the issue".
Sonia’s strategy is sound, says Yadav. "Her ambiguous withdrawal has opened up the possibility of negotiation. That would help the party in two ways. First, in building a coalition. And second, in encouraging those people who are against the NDA but fear Sonia as PM". A strategy that almost came unstuck when journalists cornered Congress spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy and he admitted that Sonia was not only the Congress candidate for PM but that the party would have to assume leadership of the proposed alliance "upfront".
Party sources say Sonia was not happy with Jaipal’s "clarification" at a time when it was playing down its habitual Big Brother attitude and holding out the promise of "a coalition of equals". In fact, the party didn’t turn a hair when veteran Karnataka leader C.K. Jaffer Sharief told the media that Sonia ought not to make a bid for PM. "We should go ahead with alliances and leave the choice of the leader to the elected MPs. If it is in Sonia’s destiny to become PM, she will. Let fate decide. Though many leaders agree with me in private, they are not ready to raise it in the party forum," he said.
After Jaipal’s faux pas, Congressmen deal with questions on Sonia’s apparent withdrawal from the prime ministerial race by saying the matter will stand clarified post facto. "There is no race for PM. The race will begin after the elections," says CWC member Pranab Mukherjee. But off the record, Congress MPs are convinced that she will not insist on being PM if her candidature stands in the way of forming a government and that Manmohan will be the "safest" alternative both for her and for the party.
"It’s all about numbers," a Rajya Sabha MP points out. In the unlikely event that the Congress crosses 200 seats, nothing could prevent Sonia from becoming PM with, say, Left and RJD support. In fact, Laloo Prasad Yadav’s endorsement of Sonia is cited as one reason why the Congress clings to the RJD despite persistent field reports that it can do better on its own than in an alliance with the regional party. But in the more feasible scenario of the Congress and BJP emerging neck-and-neck, the Congress would settle for a compromise candidate, most likely Manmohan. Even his critics in the Left Front would accept him, Congressmen feel.
Mukherjee does not think there’s any harm in a leader-less coalition. "After all, there was no leader in 1977, when there were three candidates including Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram and Charan Singh. Likewise, in 1989 no leader was projected. The same was true of 1996," he points out.
Whether it’s Sonia Gandhi and the Congress or some other leader from another like-minded party will be decided by the numerical shape the next Lok Sabha assumes. But for now, Sonia has the comfort of her shadow—a man who she trusts the most in the party. with
Bhavdeep Kang with Subodh Mishra and B.R. Srikanth