Two ideas to break the current deadlock in India’s politics—make Sonia Gandhi prime minister or change the Opposition. The first idea is mine and is unlikely to be realised. It would be too much of a gamble for the Gandhi family, though; it throws up some dynastic issues. The second comes from a frustrated foreign stockbroker in Mumbai. He wants an early general election since it would (probably) get rid of the debilitating BJP as the main Opposition. We were discussing the current political and parliamentary stalemate with the Opposition stalling Parliament for more days than it allows it to operate. I wondered why corporates spent so much time attacking the government when they know there is no better alterative. If, I argued, they are hoping for a tough Narendra Modi-led BJP government, they’d probably be disappointed since a general election would produce a coalition with even less sense of direction than the current Congress-(un)led government.
Ah yes, said my Mumbai friend, but you would change the Opposition! I was amazed. Have you ever heard of anyone wanting an election so as to oust the Opposition? But, when you think about it, it is not such a crazy idea because, even though it is currently fashionable—and fairly so—to blame the weak Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi leadership plus the tantrums of the coalition for the government’s inability to get things done, a lot of the blame must go to the BJP for blocking Parliament.
The Congress has a leadership crisis, despite many pundits still believing that Rahul Gandhi, 42-year-old heir to both dynasty and party, will emerge as a viable prime ministerial candidate for the general election in 2014. Rahul though has such a downbeat demeanour that it’s hard to see him leading anything. He indicated in July that he was ready to play a larger role, but he’s been notable since then mostly for his absence from day-to-day politics. What he’s prepared to do might become clearer later this month when long-awaited ministerial and party leadership appointments are expected, but he certainly isn’t a realistic prime ministerial candidate at this time. There are no other obvious names, assuming Manmohan, who turns 80 this month, retires in 2014, and given the party’s seeming devotion to dynastic dominance.
Maybe the Congress doesn’t see the need for change. Since it expects to lose the 2014 election, it is probably logical not to name a prime ministerial candidate, but to go into the election campaign led by Sonia Gandhi, Rahul and the current ministers. It can then decide what to do about its leadership when a coalition government is being formed and it picks the potential partners it prefers to work with. The family could also decide, after seeing how Rahul performs in the election campaign, whether to bring Priyanka, Rahul’s more personable sister, into active politics. It would be much braver however to announce—maybe middle of next year if not before—that Manmohan Singh is retiring immediately and that Sonia is to become PM (providing of course she is well enough). When she declined the job in 2004, she arguably did not have the necessary experience. She does now, and would probably do a better job than Rahul, if only because she is in total command of the party, as she has shown in recent weeks.
Open government would improve as well. As PM, she would be answerable publicly for policies, notably on the economy, that she currently pushes from behind the scenes but never has to defend, and for cabinet members’ corruption. But it would almost certainly be too much of a gamble for the dynasty. Everything that Sonia has done in the past 15 to 20 years shows that she sees her role primarily as a bridge between her late husband, Rajiv, and Rahul. Her aim is to ensure that the dynasty survives, and she has been much more candid and determined about naming her successor than any earlier member of the dynasty. She has also not tried to become India’s top leader. Given her Italian origins, that has possibly been a logical stance, but my hunch is that she may nevertheless now be the Congress’s best chance of avoiding appalling defeat in 2014.
If she failed as PM, it would be a dangerous setback for the dynasty and could encourage rumblings in the Congress for a non-Gandhi leader. That, of course, would be a good thing because near-automatic dynastic rule and family succession isn’t good for democracy. Dynasties don’t take such gambles with their futures, so it almost certainly won’t happen, and will instead become a “What If” question asked by future generations. “What if Sonia had shaken off her cautious courtiers and had made herself prime minister by 2014?”
(Delhi-based foreign correspondent John Elliott has a current affairs blog at https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/