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The Rediff Special

Why the Congress will miss Dr Singh

January 23, 2009

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Sheela Bhatt assesses the likely impact of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's [Images] absence from office on the government and the Congress party.

Prince Siddhartha took sanyas to eventually become Lord Buddha when he confronted misery due to old age, sickness and death. Even as the Congress party plays down Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cardiac bypass surgery on Saturday, his absence from the Prime Minister's office cannot be ignored.

It is well-known that in deciding political issues, Dr Singh never carried weight suitable to his position within the party. There was and is a clear demarcation between the political power wielded by Congress President Sonia Gandhi [Images] and Dr Singh's sphere of work in running the government.

In the Congress and in Indian politics for the last decade, '10, Janpath', Sonia Gandhi's home in New Delhi [Images], has been a metaphor for real power within the Congress party. Still, Dr Singh's physical absence from office at a most unsuitable time will make the Congress party uncomfortable.

Paying homage to the martyrs who laid down their lives at India Gate on Republic Day and being a big part of the annual parade of military pomp and cultural pagentry is a historic privilege no prime minister likes to miss. There will also be protocol problems like leading the bilateral talks with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the chief guest at this year's Republic Day parade.

In New Delhi's power structure, the immediate issue subtly noticed once again is the trust deficit between Sonia Gandhi and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee [Images]. It is a fact that the United Progressive Alliance government was heavily dependent on Mukherjee's political wisdom. Dr Singh gave Mukherjee charge of almost all crucial matters and policy decisions; the veteran minister headed scores of committees that took vital decisions with far-reaching impact.

People casually noted that "Pranabda is running the government." Still, that old, invisible distance between 10, Janpath and Mukherjee exists and there are no signs that suggest it has disappeared.

On October 31, 1984, when then prime minister Indira Gandhi [Images] was assassinated, then Congress party general secretary and her elder son Rajiv Gandhi [Images] was travelling in West Bengal. A special flight was arranged to bring Rajiv back to New Delhi.

Rajiv, Pranab Mukherjee, Uma Shanker Dixit, then the governor of West Bengal, his daughter-in-law Sheila Dixit, then secretary general of the Lok Sabha Subhash Kashyap and security personnel were on that special flight from Calcutta to New Delhi.

What transpired on the flight has never been forgotten by the Gandhi family. It is said Mukherjee tried to argue that when a prime minister dies, convention requires the senior-most cabinet minister take oath as prime minister. This argument was construed as Mukherjee's claim to the office.

However, convention was set aside and Rajiv Gandhi, who had never held a ministerial post until then, was sworn in as prime minister. The 'senior-most minister' in Indira Gandhi's cabinet was set aside.

The Congress has many issues to tackle other than selecting a successor to Dr Singh if the need so arises.

Dr Singh could not throw his weight around when he was present, but his short absence will mark his importance in the corridors of Congress politics and in managing diplomacy after the Mumbai terror attacks [Images], where time is the crucial factor.

India's relationship with Pakistan and America depends on Dr Singh's personal touch and beliefs. The coming fortnight is crucial for India's relationship with both countries and Dr Singh's absence will be felt.

Dr Singh was also a fair referee between Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram and Mukherjee. Congressmen claim that in recent weeks Chidambaram has been encroaching on Mukherjee's turf at the external affairs ministry. His interview to The Times, London [Images], is cited as an example of this.

Chidambaram also took a hardline stance against Pakistan as against Mukherjee's soft approach. It is said Mukherjee spiked Chidambaram's proposed trip to the United States, which was otherwise also ill-timed.

Though Mukherjee will take temporary charge of the finance ministry when Dr Singh recovers from surgery, the prime minister's sure hand at the wheel will be missed when the government prepares for the passage of Vote on Account in Parliament.

As a general election approaches, instead of the annual Budget, the government will seek a Vote of Account during a truncated session of Parliament from February 12 to February 26. It will nevertheless give the country an overview of the economy and the challenges it faces as the world experiences a global financial meltdown.

Some other decisions are pending like the appointment of a Secretary (R) to head the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency. P V Kumar was tipped to become the R&AW chief, but there is no word as yet from the Prime Minister's Office.

In the last five years, the Congress has not tried to encash Dr Singh's role in making liberalisation work. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's [Images] 'Vibrant Gujarat' would not have been as impressive but for Dr Singh's effort in bringing huge Japanese investment of more than Rs 40,000 crore to build an industrial corridor between Mumbai and Delhi. Nearly 40 percent of the route falls in Gujarat.

Modi grabbed the opportunity and made the embassy of Japan [Images] a partner in his recent Vibrant Gujarat show and most of the promises of billions of dollars in investment are mainly on the both sides of the corridor and the development of a new port near Jambusar.

Behind the shrewd publicity of the Modi government's business activity, it is Dr Singh's economic policy at work at a macro level.

The Congress will go to the polls with the young face of party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi [Images] and issues like aam aadmi. Dr Singh's services will not be asked for in the electoral battle of 2009; in any case, it was rarely used in the last five years. His presence in the Congress scheme of things was more of symbolic, rather than political, value. But he was a stable symbol of governance that has now been shaken by his short absence from office.

Lord Buddha knew thousands of years ago how age brings uncertainty and fear. The prime minister's short leave from office has reminded that to all of us.


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