After years of vacillation, Gandhi family scion Rahul has announced that he would play a more proactive role in the United Progressive Alliance government and the Congress party. Although the announcement was seemingly prompted by a crescendo of sycophantic entreaties, the Congress has little choice but to field Gandhi in a more visible role ahead of the general election in 2014.
Thanks to a process culminating with Pranab Mukherjee's election as President, the Congress faces a leadership void even as its travails worsen. Sonia Gandhi's illness -- the details of which still remain concealed from the public -- has led to speculation about how actively she can campaign for the Congress. The party cannot go into the election projecting Dr Manmohan Singh as the prime ministerial candidate -- although that might please many industrialists, foreign and Indian.
Rahul Gandhi has spent enough time on the admittedly hard task of trying to rejuvenate the Congress by activating and "democratising" its youth wing -- largely unsuccessfully, and with indifferent results in the recent Bihar and Uttar Pradesh elections. He must now take on ministerial responsibilities, hone his administrative skills, and develop an understanding of the complexities of governance.
It's unclear if Gandhi will rise to the high performance mark in governance that every Congressman expects from him -- as if that were a genetic or family attribute. But he will gain nothing by shirking responsibility. He can no longer remain the untested weapon in the UPA's armoury.
The challenges confronting the Congress and the UPA government are mounting as the economy slows down, investment slackens, and elite right-wing pressure grows in favour of abandoning interventions to empower the poor, and for pursuing aggressive neoliberal policies such as free foreign capital entry into retail trade, dismantling of labour and environmental protections, and vigorous privatisation of public sector enterprises.
The real test of leadership lies in refusing to cave in to elite pressure and delivering what India's underprivileged people need for a humane, dignified existence. Dr Singh has repeatedly failed the test. Indeed, he has thwarted or diluted -- directly or through his proxy, Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia -- several sensible proposals made by progressive scholars, civil society activists and by the UPA's own National Advisory Council.
These include a comprehensive food security bill, minimum wages for National Rural Employment Guarantee Act workers, old-age pensions for the poor, and universal provision of good-quality healthcare and education. Much of this can be done by using a modest fraction of the government's revenue income, which has nearly quadrupled since 2004.
Dr Singh's refusal to do this is alienating the underprivileged who form a good proportion of the Congress's vote base. Yet, his government is changing the NAC's composition and character. The recent replacement of Messrs Jean Dreze, Harsh Mander, Madhav Gadgil and MS Swaminathan with the more conservative Mihir Shah and D Mandal doesn't bode well for the UPA or Congress.
Another source of the Congress's troubles is UPA allies such as Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party led by Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. Banerjee played fast and loose on supporting Mukherjee in the presidential election until she finally (and gracelessly) backed him. She remains a difficult customer and threatens to fight the local elections in West Bengal on her own.
Pawar also took advantage of the Congress's weakened position by threatening to quit the UPA and offering it "outside support". Although Pawar has cited issues of "principle", such as governance failures and the NCP's exclusion from UPA decision-making, his real grievances have to do with the frustration of his prime ministerial ambitions, and his inability to gain high stature, including the Number Two slot in the Cabinet.
Pawar resents Gandhi's likely entry into the Cabinet. He privately complains that after having served under stalwarts like YB Chavan and Indira Gandhi, he had to play second fiddle to Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao, and would now have to defer to Rahul who is younger than his own daughter. Worse, his one-time protégé Sushilkumar Shinde is likely to replace Mukherjee as the Leader of the Lok Sabha, outflanking Pawar.
Pawar should know this is inevitable given that the NCP only holds nine Lok Sabha seats, compared to the Congress's 207. His greater grievance pertains to Maharashtra, where his colleagues have come under critical scrutiny from Congress Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan for alleged corruption in the award of urban land development, irrigation and other contracts to unscrupulous businessmen.
For instance, over the past decade, the state has spent Rs 70,000 crores on irrigation, but its irrigated area has increased by just five percent, worth less than one-fifth of the expenditure. Thousands of crores have been diverted to the land mafia and builders in the name of "slum redevelopment" on prime property in Mumbai and other cities.
The posh Lavasa township near Pune is reportedly fraught with numerous illegalities, including destruction of virgin rainforests and watersheds, misrepresentation of facts, and tampering with land records. The NCP is also named in a scandal in the construction of the new Maharashtra Sadan state guesthouse in Delhi.
Chavan, who has a squeaky-clean reputation, was sent by the Congress's apex leadership to Maharashtra to clean up the mess after the Adarsh Society scam. He has put "a clamp" on many dubious real estate projects. He has set up a housing regulatory authority and brought in stringent laws to redress public grievances against builders. He has also ordered a white paper on irrigation.
The NCP-controlled Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank, which at one time played a major role in financing cooperative sugar mills, has been placed under administrators because of huge losses caused by bad loans and other malpractices.
All this has miffed the NCP. It maliciously accuses Chavan of thwarting "development". The latest six-day standoff over its threat to quit the UPA was pure brinkmanship. The NCP could not have walked out of the UPA without its government collapsing in Maharashtra, the only state where it is in power.
Nor can the NCP hope to retain its strength in the Maharashtra assembly unless it fights the next state elections in alliance with some other party -- if not the Congress, then the Bharatiya Janata Party or one or both factions of the Shiv Sena. But with the elections almost two years away, the time isn't quite ripe for the NCP to move Rightwards.
The big obstacles to such a shift would not be principles, but hard political realities. No principles like secularism deterred Pawar in 1978 from joining hands with right-wing communal parties by defecting from the Congress. He could do so yet again. In fact, he recently fought two rounds of local elections in alliance with the BJP and the Sena, and won in many municipal bodies.
However, the BJP isn't particularly well placed for the 2014 elections in Maharashtra, or for that matter, nationally. Despite Raj Thackeray's much publicised sympathy visit to his cousin Uddhav in a Mumbai hospital, his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena -- now probably bigger than the parent party -- is unlikely to ally, leave alone merge, with it. Nor will the NCP or the BJP find it easy to broker a deal between the two.
So despite his bravado, Pawar's options were rather limited. That's why he tamely settled for a UPA "coordination committee" at the Centre and a Congress-NCP committee in Maharashtra. Through the second, he will press for the withdrawal of some worthy measures Chief Minister Chavan has taken against corruption involving NCP ministers. If it has any political sense, the Congress should strongly resist such pressure.
Pawar personifies degeneration from practical politics with a purpose to unbounded opportunism and cynicism. He started out as a dynamic young politician and a YB Chavan favourite In 1972-74, when Maharashtra was gripped by a terrible drought, he was instrumental in extending the recently launched Employment Guarantee Scheme to provide income to the affected people. He used sugarcane growers' cooperatives to promote education.
The cooperatives are now defunct or mired in murderous rivalry. Pawar is India's agriculture minister, but hasn't bothered to visit Punjab, which faces acute agrarian distress.Why, he didn't even go to India's farmer-suicide capital Vidarbha, in his own native Maharashtra, until Dr Singh did. He doesn't deserve an iota of sympathy.