In the family way

In January 1966, after Lal Bahadur Shastri's sudden death in Tashkent, Congress party bosses, collectively nicknamed "The Syndicate", met to smoothen the second succession within 18 months. The irrepressible S.K. Patil started by appealing to the then unquestionably most important leader, the Congress president: "I say, Kamaraj, please choose someone young so that India, too, can have an ex-prime minister some day". Today, there are four former prime ministers amidst us, and they are heavily outnumbered by wannabe prime ministers. To quote Lalu Prasad Yadav, there is no dearth of candidates and he is one of them. A wag's comment while the candidature of a few of them might be plausible, most were "candidoubtfuls".

It is in this context that many find Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statements on the subject during his mid-air press conference, rather intriguing. According to him, it is "too soon" to say who the Congress party's prime ministerial candidate would be even though the next election is no more than six months away.

His remark that the Congress has "better leaders than me" bespeaks of his becoming modesty but isn't on all fours. For there is no multiplicity of Congress leaders vying with the good doctor for the top job.

There has, however, been a campaign, albeit episodic, to project Rahul Gandhi as the party's prime ministerial nominee. Before proceeding further, it is necessary to point out that even in the halcyon days when the Congress ruled by itself at the Centre, there were two occasions when uncertainty arose about the future occupancy of the top room. At the time of the 1967 general election Indira Gandhi was in the saddle, having defeated Morarji Desai, 13 months back, by a convincing majority in the parliamentary party's first and so far only contest for leadership. Desai, however, was adamant on challenging her leadership after the poll. Ironically, the Syndicate that had originally sided with Indira Gandhi to keep Desai out, had also turned hostile to her.

As it happened, the electorate delivered heavy blows to the Congress. It lost a number of states most of the Syndicate members, including Kamaraj were been defeated and its majority in the Lok Sabha was substantially reduced. A renewed leadership contest could have torn the party apart. A deflated Syndicate was therefore able to force Desai into a compromise where he became deputy prime minister in Indira Gandhi's cabinet. But the tenuous and phony compromise collapsed soon enough. In July 1969, Desai was out of the cabinet. The Congress split two months later. The rest of the story Indira Gandhi's rise to the pinnacle of power and her stunning fall in the post-Emergency election in 1977 is well known. Neither landmark event was a surprise. What was surprising, however, was the disintegration of the Janata, headed by Morarji Desai, and Indira Gandhi's spectacular return to power in 33 months flat. Be it noted that in 1980 Indira had acquired a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Within a year, her party was ruling all except three states of India. Today's Congress is only a shrunken shell of its old self. It has less than 140 members in the Lok Sabha. Except for Andhra that it rules on its own and Maharashtra where it is in power in partnership with Sharad Pawar's

Nationalist Congress Party, the states it governs are small and inconsequential.

Dynastic succession, now the well established pattern in a large number of parties, was ushered in by Indira Gandhi in the early Seventies when she started grooming her younger son Sanjay. (Whatever Jawaharlal Nehru's ambitions for his daughter, he did nothing to pitchfork her into the office he held for 17 years. His successor was Shastri, not she.) Rajiv was persuaded to plunge into politics only after Sanjay's death. Even so, at the time of Indira Gandhi's assassination there was a certain inevitability about his stepping into her shoes. Yet, Pranab Mukherjee briefly flirted with the idea that his claim was stronger, and paid a heavy price for it. Ritual denials by all concerned cannot alter established facts.

So there is nothing unusual in the move to make Rahul Gandhi the putative prime minister, except that, unlike what happened in the cases of his uncle and father, the campaign to project him as the party's prime ministerial candidate, has been somewhat episodic. It has also witnessed some flip-flops. For more than three years after 2004, the one idea to emanate from all Congress conclaves was: "Assign greater responsibility to Rahulji". After his appointment as the AICC general secretary and the start of his road shows and visits to Harijan homes and disaster victims, he began to be seen as the person to head a future Congress-led government. The Union HRD minister, Arjun Singh, adept in doing whatever undermines the PM, was the first to demand Rahul's projection as the next incumbent of 7 Race Course Road. Others joined the chorus enthusiastically. Even Sharad Pawar, an important Congress ally, came on board, reversing his earlier stand on the issue. Then, as a result of a mild rebuke from 10 Janpath, Arjun Singh & Co piped down.

After the confidence vote and the decision to push the until then languishing Indo-US nuclear deal, the Congress president let the word be spread that Manmohan Singh was the party's nominee for the job he already holds. If despite this, a responsible and careful Congress leader like Veerappa Moily revived the "Rahul-as-PM" idea at a time when Manmohan Singh was still abroad and being congratulated on seeing the nuclear deal through, he could not have done so in a fit of absent-mindedness. He took care, of course, to add that the young man was in no hurry to "grab" power. But political Delhi drew its own conclusions. Evidently, the Prime Minister also took notice of Moily's "message". Only Sonia Gandhi can clear this cobweb of confusion and uncertainty. However, at the time of writing, she is maintaining her customary silence.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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