A long and winding road
By Santwana Bhattacharya - NEW DELHI
Published: 29th Jul 2012 09:07:03 AM
Rahul’s ascent to government is more than just a question of him turning up and naturally becoming the helmsman. A generational shift seems like a good idea to all—except the old guard.
It’s safe to presume that Pawar too doesn’t wish to volunteer for it and sacrifice his political stakes in the process. A parallel power centre in the Cabinet, with an author-backed script that keeps the highest chair warm for him, is not something the Maratha strongman would relish.
According to sources, the PM doesn’t wish to upset the status quo either. Manmohan Singh is naturally interested in the survival and functioning of his government, and after Pranab’s exit he needs someone like Pawar—a savvy master at the art of political survival, with access across parties. That Manmohan made a placatory statement to Pawar shows where his leanings are. His desire for stability is also visible in the fact that he’s equitably redistributed the GoMs formerly headed by Pranab Mukherjee among Pawar, Chidambaram and Antony.
Timing is crucial, and explanatory. The NCP rebellion ended in an uneasy truce on July 25. The very next day came news that 10 Congress MPs had written to Sonia with the demand that Rahul be made Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha, another post vacant after Pranab’s departure. Most of these 10 MPs, barring P C Chacko and Sanjay Nirupam, are fringe players, unattached to any lobby. One of the signatories is Kalahandi MP Bhaktacharan Das, normally a reticent type.
Now, to be the Leader of the House, you have to be a Cabinet-rank minister. For the post implies that you become the leading voice of the government in debates and discussions on bills and policy decisions, the details of these you can be privy to only if you’re in the Union Cabinet. Essentially, if that were to come to pass, for Pawar it wouldn’t matter which chair Rahul sat on during Cabinet meetings—Rahul would have been de facto No. 2.
Besides figures in the UPA, even powerful lobbies in the party are in no particular hurry to see Rahul elevated, because that threatens their clout. In a flurry of nervous communication, they sought to persuade Sonia that it would be unfair on Rahul to make him the Leader of the House in such a hurry, with less than two weeks to go for the Monsoon session. Since he’s totally inexperienced in government, they argued, it would be like throwing him off the deep end—and that would bring no great benefits to the UPA either. Thus, it would be better to at least wait till September, after the House session.
There are powerful stakeholders who would like to have Rahul kept busy in party affairs. And here too, they wish to see a grandiose title like ‘working president’ avoided. They have been vocal enough to point out that “two power centres would create confusion in the functioning of the party’’.
Senior Congress leaders’ argument is that it would carry a negative connotation about Sonia Gandhi’s health and that won’t be good for party for “she is still its primary leader”. Party vice-presidentship for Rahul, as Ramesh Chennithala suggested, is still a distinct possibility though.
Since the status-quoist lobby within the Congress can’t entirely thwart Rahul’s growth, the ideal scenario for them is to get him to be general secretary, organisation. Currently, family loyalist Oscar Fernandes holds the post and will have no issues in stepping back for Rahul’s elevation in the main party.
In this role, Rahul can involve himself in restructuring the party—essentially a carryover of what he’s been doing with the young wings at a senior level. It’s a messy and tiresome job, with no guarantee of political rewards. And a long shot from No. 2 of the UPA. But it’s a powerful enough post, since no appointment in the AICC can be made without the organisational secretary’s signature. “Please note, no one can be appointed to any post nor can any AICC meeting be convened without Oscarji’s knowledge,’’ a key party leader and in-charge of a crucial state said.
It’s clear now that Rahul himself may not be totally averse to the idea. It gives him more time to gain control over party affairs at various levels. Already he’s taking interest in state affairs. After the NCP rebellion threatened to spill over into the Maharashtra unit of the Congress, with legislators seeking Prithviraj Chavan’s exit, MPCC chief Manikrao Thakre gave Rahul a 40-minute briefing about party affairs in the state. After the Assam rioting started, state in-charge Digvijay Singh similarly briefed him. Ashok Gehlot too gave him a long one-on-one about Rajasthan, which is due for polls next year, and Rahul told him to induct young faces for that.
And Rahul’s favourite set of young politicians are also being put in crucial decision-making slots. The committee that will screen candidates for the Gujarat Assembly elections later this year has Rahul acolyte RPN Singh; MoS Home Jitender Singh has been given put in the committee for Himachal Pradesh and Jitin Prasada for Tripura. A band of Youth Congress figures mentored by Rahul too have been elevated as general secretaries and other leadership roles in state units in Gujarat, Tripura and Tamil Nadu.
So, UPA II is unlikely to see an automatic coronation for Rahul Gandhi. From a prince-in-waiting, he may settle into a more realistic political role. It’s not a walkover that awaits him, but a long hard padayatra.