After Manmohan Singh who? The political parties and the people are prying into the affairs of the ruling Congress to make a guess. It is not that Manmohan Singh is indispensable. Nor has he been out of step with the pace by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the real power. It is merely her calculation when to anoint her son, Rahul Gandhi.
True, lately Manmohan Singh’s stock has plummeted and even as an economist he has been found out of depth. But these are only aggravating factors. The real reason is Rahul Gandhi, who unfortunately has not revived the Nehru-Gandhi charisma. One question before Mrs Gandhi is that the President of India, Pratibha Singh Patel, retires in the middle of next year. Should Manmohan Singh be elevated then? Even otherwise, Manmohan Singh will be almost 80-year-old in 2014 when the new Lok Sabha is elected.
What ails the Congress is that it has very few leaders who are of Prime Minister Timber. Names of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Defence Minister A K Antony and Home Minister P Chidambaram come straight to one’s mind. Yet all the three do not make the top position for one reason or the other. At least, Mukherjee and Chidambaram are not in the reckoning of Sonia Gandhi whose say is beyond doubt.
Manmohan Singh who has matured politically in the seven and a half years of Prime Ministership knows about crisscrossing and dissensions in his party. Sonia Gandhi has been his great teacher and he has learnt from her when to tick off whom. Before going abroad this time, the Prime Minister had the cabinet secretariat to issue a communiqué to make it clear that there was no No 2 in the government. Manmohan Singh himself remained in control even when he was out of the country.
However during his absence, either the Home Minister or the Finance Minister can preside over the cabinet committee on political affairs. Apparently, their feud was in the PM’s mind and he, therefore, did not nominate either of them as ‘No. 2.’ However, Mukherjee will preside when there is a meeting of the cabinet committee. Chidambaram gets the chance if and when Mukherjee is not available. The vagueness in the arrangement has been kept purposely so as to keep both on best of their behaviour.
Understandably, Antony does not figure in the communiqué. I have a feeling that both Mukherjee and Chidambaram may be ignored and Antony can be the dark horse. But this depends on whether Rahul Gandhi can still make the waves. UP can be his waterloo. If the result in the state election early next year does not favour the Congress – it wants to occupy the second position, next to Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party – Sonia Gandhi may not nominate him.
Senior most Agricultural Minister Sharad Pawar who has expressed his frustration may have been in the reckoning if he had stayed with the Congress. But he left it to protest against a foreigner, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, becoming the party president. How can she tolerate him occupying the top position? His grouse has found expression in the remark that the present situation in the country is because of the weakness of the government which he also represents.
His Nationalist Congress Party has not enough strength to rebel even if Rahul Gandhi is made the PM. Many years ago, the Congress faced a similar problem on the selection of successor when PM Jawaharlal Nehru fell sick a few months before his death. Yet the challenges were different at that time. There was no dearth of leaders. Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram and Nehru’s own daughter, Indira Gandhi, were popular among the public. Anyone of them was eligible to be Nehru’s successor.
The real challenge, which the Western media had hyped, was whether the democratic system in the country would stay after Nehru. Journalists from the UK and the US, particularly from the former, predicted that democracy would end once Nehru breathed his last. An American journalist Wells Hangen wrote a book, After Nehru Who?, and listed among the claimants two army officers, General K S Thimmaya, a popular commander, and General B M Kaul, close to the dynasty.
What it conveyed was that the army might take over the country after Nehru’s death. The West never understood – it still does not – that the diversity in India would not allow any system other than democracy to stay. This only ensures the different communities and castes their freedom as well as identity. India is democratic, not because it is competing with China, which is communist, but because it is the only system which is suited to its genius.
The problem which faces India is trivialisation of the society. Elections have refurbished the sectarian caste or even sub-caste. Even religion has begun to play some role. That Manmohan Singh has inveighed against these tendencies is not enough. Had he been politically popular, he might have countered them. Nehru at one time got the columns of caste and religion in application forms to government jobs or admissions to schools deleted. Manmohan Singh’s success could be in unleashing new forces like engineers, doctors, lawyers and academicians or those who are returning from abroad without old rigidities.
The economic growth that Manmohan Singh has initiated in the country is impressive but it has not curbed parochial tendencies. His policies have yawned the distance between the haves and the have-nots. In Nehru’s days, the ratio between the top and the lowest was 10:1. Now, it is a thousand times more. The pertinent question which needs to be posed is: What after Manmohan Singh, not after Manmohan Singh who? His wasteful policies, although populist, have had an emaciating effect on 80 per cent of people. They are hardly bothered about the debate after Manmohan Singh who? They want bread.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist.