Will they go the distance?


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Will they go the distance?

It was billed as a model partnership. Sonia Gandhi the inspiration, Manmohan Singh the executor. But suddenly in the last one month or so, the two don't seem to be on the same page on a number of issues: Women's Bill, Nuclear Civil Liability Bill, Food Security Bill... the list is growing. And now Sonia's entry as NAC boss is likely to mean less elbow room for the government on social issues. Does this mean a distancing between the two? TOI-CREST explores a complex arrangement.

Jodi No1... Power Duo... UPA's Top Seeds... Delhi's wordsmiths have run out of words to describe one of the most enduring political partnerships in Indian politics. Belying doomsday forecasts, the partnership of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, now in its sixth eventful year, is batting on a figurative 89 not out. Will they go on to score a century and more?

From the first dramatic moment when Sonia Gandhi heard her "inner voice", and stepped back from plucking what looked like the low-hanging fruit of prime ministership and offered the honour to Manmohan Singh, a remarkably stable relationship has grown, mature and invariably complementary, to nix what's usually been the Delhi durbar's lethal mix of old-fashioned court intrigues, inflated egos, occasional divergences, and even accidental ambitions.

As Prime Minister, Singh has fully grasped both the extraordinary opportunities that opened up for him in the twilight of his political career as well as the rules that govern them. Not once has he lost sight of Sonia's dominance in the party or her role as the prime binder of the ruling coalition.

Such has been the PM's restraint, that he is yet to give a full-fledged interview to an Indian newspaper or even hold a press conference on the country's soil. Given the arrangement, it's only decorous that he keeps away from full glare, and he has fulfilled the role meticulously.

On her part, Sonia has been a picture of grace, her body language never ever aggressive when with Manmohan. On the contrary, it often borders on the reverential.

In the run-up to the 2009 elections, when many in her party suggested that son Rahul had come of age and it was perhaps time for the party's first family to reclaim its legacy, she brushed the suggestion aside, drawing attention to "our Prime Minister" at a joint press conference. The reasons why a Gandhi did not become PM in 2004 remained valid even now, she said. It would appear her Great Sacrifice wasn't just an inspired reaction to a tricky situation, but a well thought-out power-sharing doctrine.

But, as UPA-2 draws closer to its first anniversary, there is an increasingly audible buzz about changing power equations. Analysts are pointing to "definite" signs of a disconnect between the two power centres.

The setting up of the National Advisory Council (NAC) under Sonia Gandhi earlier this month to speed up her social agenda has only given a boost to what threatens to become the favourite parlour game. Just when and how will the power transition be carried out from Singh to Rahul?

It was, after all, written early in the script that Rahul must take up the reins. But, when? Within a year or two, or after scoring a big win in the next polls? Political circles are rife with speculation.

The rift between the party headed by Sonia and the government led by Singh seems to have begun with the Women's Reservation Bill when Sonia first goaded and then directed a reluctant government to ensure its passage in the Rajya Sabha, despite obvious political risks.

This was followed by her partymen virtually moth-balling the Nuclear Civil Liability Bill, which was threatening to become a political hot potato as it seemed to suck up more to American commercial interests than to heed Indian safety concerns.

That was not all. Sonia critiqued the Food Security Bill as it didn't match up to her 'aam-admi' wish list. And before analysts could assess the political implications of this series of rebuffs to the government, Sonia had taken up the leadership of an institutional mechanism, NAC, to burnish UPA-2 's social agenda.

A swallow doesn't signify summer. But as this seemed to be a flock, the season is under intense scrutiny. Contrary to Sonia's characteristic evasion of the limelight and her seeming inclination to give credit to the PM for "achievements" like the nuclear deal, she gave short TV interviews moments after the passage of the Women's Bill in Rajya Sabha to make it clear that she was the architect of the bold measure.

As is often the case with political crystal-gazing, definitive conclusions about the rift are possibly exaggerated, and almost certainly premature. After all, the fundamental logic of the power-sharing pact — that Manmohan Singh was the best of the lot, a man of personal integrity, professional efficiency and political maturity, and that he lacks the ambition to pose a threat to the Congress's prime ministerial plans for Rahul Gandhi – remains just as strong.

But what makes him benign can also make him crucial, if not indispensable. And therein lies the rub. A question being debated is whether the Prime Minister, knowing full well that a third term will be impossible, might be getting tempted to use his second innings to explore his own private space in policy and other matters. There is talk of him wanting to sculpt a legacy around his ideas of foreign policy and economic growth.

The theory about Manmohan's legacy came into circulation when the Prime Minister, in his eagerness for a rapprochement with Pakistan, was said to have exceeded his brief at Sharm-el-Sheikh.

His acquiescence at Pakistan's insistence to insert a mention of India's alleged meddling in Balochistan in the joint statement was probably aimed at appearing fair-minded. It was also in line with his belief that good relations with immediate neighbours would help India better realise its full potential.

But this "out-of-box" thinking irked the party, which felt that the move did not factor in popular anger against Pakistan's continued refusal to help bring the 26/11 perpetrators to book. This was seen to be politically naïve in the run-up to polls in Maharashtra.

The party made its annoyance known by refusing to defend the peace initiative even as it was mauled by the Opposition. The public snub may not have forced the Prime Minister to backpedal on his peace agenda, but it has certainly brought about a certain circumspection that was not on display at Sharm-el-Sheikh.

The 2009 win, though fully credited to Sonia's welfarist agenda, was also in part put down to the Congress's projection of a "decent and honest" Manmohan Singh.

Perhaps the hardsell of Singh was a tactical imperative to blunt the BJP's attacks on the "weak" PM and contrast him with a "strong" L K Advani, but analysts — who failed to see the pro-Congress surge in 2009 — swiftly concluded that while higher farm prices and the loan waiver for farmers worked in rural India, it was Singh who got the thumbs up from middle India.

While this may or not may not have emboldened the coterie that invariably grows around a prime minister, there are clear indications that Sonia Gandhi is now keen to impose herself on matters central to her 'aam aadmi' plank and, equally important, that the government is yet to align itself fully with the pace with which she wants to go about it.

It appears that while her top priority is to build a rock solid political plank for the next election and, on the basis of that, Rahul's elevation to the top job, the PM's men are still stuck in business-as-usual governance that's guided by pragmatism.

The formation of the NAC is seen as a pointer to the Congress leadership's impatience with the government's inability to quickly cut through lengthy processes. It's believed that Sonia was reluctant to take up the leadership of the NAC — billed as the Planning Commission for the social sector — till her unhappiness with the Food Security Bill helped make up her mind.

Sonia's impatience was understandable, given that providing food security to millions who don't get two square meals a day has always been high on her agenda. In fact, she herself had written to the PM giving her wish list. It was, therefore, odd that the ministerial panel did not pay heed to her views on bringing all vulnerable categories — tribals, street children, destitutes, etc — under the social safety net, and instead opted for a cost-conscious approach focused only on below-the-poverty-line families.

The government had also appeared to be mindful of the political cost — when it hemmed and hawed over the Women's Bill before being given the "take- 'em-on" directive by Sonia at the crucial March 8 meeting of the Congress core group.

Singh, who was not ready to blink in the standoff over the Indo-US nuclear deal, has been equally proactive in pushing the Nuclear Civil Liability Bill, which was brought to the Lok Sabha even after National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon's effort to lobby the Opposition for support had failed.

Even as the PM's key move to fully operationalise the N-deal has got stuck in the tug between the party and the government, another crucial legislation allowing foreign universities to set up campuses in India has triggered misgivings among many in the party. The explanation trotted out by HRD minister Kapil Sibal that the legislation was cleared by the standing committee of which Rahul Gandhi was a member and that it was mentioned in President Pratibha Patil's address to the joint session of Parliament, hasn't cut ice. Partymen insist they are not being kept in the loop on important government measures.

The mismatch between the government's priorities and the party's preferences showed through starkly when 35 Congress Lok Sabha MPs, some of them ministers, stayed away from the House when the government brought the Nuclear Civil Liability Bill, raising the question as to why the very same set who were ready to be brought around to support the Women's Bill were now reluctant to throw their weight behind the PM's signature initiative. Had they received a signal from the party leadership, or were they waiting for one?

The setting up of the NAC, the letter that Sonia shot off on the Food Security Bill and the embarrassment over the Nuclear Civil Liability Bill seem to be nudging the government towards a course correction of sorts. A clear hint came from the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who said that the government was flexible on increasing the monthly entitlement of foodgrains under the food security law, as well as on the issue of how to identify the poverty-ridden.

Considering that Ahulwalia — the PM's original choice for the job of finance minister — is not known to be enamoured of welfare initiatives of this kind, many promptly concluded that Sonia's pressure was already working.

Party managers feel that the new-found government sensitivity was only in order to smother the perception of any schism — a perception often stoked by vested interests when they sense an opportunity.

But the truth is that there are already enough signs to keep mischief mongers busy. Sonia Gandhi's exclusion from the PR blitz on the Right to Education Bill — she didn't figure in the ads — did not go unnoticed . That Manmohan Singh failed to acknowledge her contribution even in his address to the nation, did aggravate the grievance of those at the party headquarters, who had also noticed the absence of any mention of Sonia in Singh's speech in the Rajya Sabha on the day it passed the Women's Bill. But they got no encouragement whatsoever from the party leadership.

Sonia does not mind deferring to the PM's wishes on given issues, including those that fall squarely in her jurisdiction. She accommodated the PM's insistence on a Rajya Sabha berth for former junior minister Ashwini Kumar from Punjab even though the choice did not jell with the party's political calculus.

Given the leadership's high premium on "loyalty" , Singh remains the safest pair of hands for the first family. Though many feel that Rahul has already acquired enough political capital to justify his claims for the prime ministerial berth, Sonia feels he should take office only on the basis of a "clean mandate" — one based on a clear understanding that he is the party's first and only candidate for the job. And she is aware that till that happens Manmohan Singh is the best bet.

The party's challenge is to make the scripted transition with the minimum heartburn for both sides, facilitate a gracious exit for Singh and stagemanage an assured entry for Rahul. But, unfortunately power is never a smooth thing to pass on. Sonia has her task cut out.


Joint Statement At Sharm-El-Sheikh

The India-Pakistan joint statement that included a reference to Baluchistan, implying an alleged role by India in the unrest there, sparked a sharp domestic reaction. Congress swifly distanced itself from the formulation. Govt beat a retreat and ties with Pak remained frozen.

Right To Information

Govt move to "tighten" RTI, proposals to weed out "frivolous and vexatious" requests and screen notes preceding a decision have been opposed by information commissioners and activists. Sonia pitches in for RTI, writes to PM suggesting the act not be changed.

National Food Security Act

Govt move to restrict Act to a bare minimum of PDS users in BPL category opposed. Sonia insists the Act take a fresh look at number of beneficiaries and proposals to change eligibility criteria.

Civil Liability For Nuclear Damage Bill

Congress does not oppose the bill, but party indicates that while the proposed law is priority for govt, the party does not share the enthusiasm. Party wary of being seen as kowtowing to US interests.

Women's Reservation Bill

Despite the govt being lukewarm towards putting women's quota upfront in Parliament, Sonia's steely resolve ensures that managers bend their backs to pass the legislation through Rajya Sabha.

Foreign Education Providers Bill

Proposal allowing foreign universities to set up campuses in India has given rise to misgivings within the Congress; HRD minister Kapil Sibal has sought to defend it by saying it was cleared by the standing committee of which Rahul Gandhi is a member.

Global Defence

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