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Will Meira Kumar be Rahul's Manmohan?

March 07, 2013 13:04 IST

While it would be wonderful to have a bright young politician like Sachin Pilot or Jyotiraditya Scindia as Rahul's premier, the chances are that Rahul will opt for Symbolism over Competence and Youth.

And what more potent symbol than a Dalit Lady Leader, asks Heptanesia Mumbaikar.

Almost 15 years ago -- in August 1998, six years before she stunned the nation with her decision not to accept the prime minister's mantle -- I asked Sonia Gandhi if 'When your party comes to power, you will stay on as Congress president and he will be prime minister?'

As I then recorded on Rediff.com, 'She looks at Dr Manmohan Singh -- the 'he' in my inquiry -- with apparent amusement and says, "It is too early. We will cross the bridge when we come to it."

Dr Singh was unamused; he refused to speak to me that afternoon.

Six years later, my awesome colleague Sheela Bhatt was the first to break the story that Sonia would not be prime minister that May 2004 afternoon, much before the television channels had the story. Sheela's source was unimpeachable and was likely the first to know.

Over the last few days, the media has been full of speculation that Rahul Gandhi will emulate his mother and not accept the prime minister's post, and instead appoint a Manmohan Singh-like proxy to do the PM's job.

Going by his stated aversion to power, comparing it to poison in his Jaipur Chintan Shivir speech, I believe Rahul will stay away from Racecourse Road, where Indian prime ministers live.

The difficult job of running a government is not for someone who was distracted and restless during the presentation of the Budget on February 28.

From what one hears in Delhi, Rahul Gandhi is a reluctant politician, forced into doing it by his mother.

While he has grown into some aspects of the job -- he seems clearly interested in meeting people, especially in villages; is a bleeding heart like his mama, who is probably more Left of Centre than Prakash Karat is -- I doubt very much that he would want to read voluminous government files like P V Narasimha Rao did.

At 80, Dr Singh works for close to 18 hours a day, clearly more than any one of his ministers. I don't believe Rahul would like to spend that much time each day navigating the byzantine alleys of governance.

I don't know if prime ministers need to work that hard. As some may quip, what use was it for Narasimha Rao and Dr Singh to so micro-manage when both their administrations were/are so dysfunctional?

Two other prime ministers whom India still feels nostalgic about were not known to be such file-pushers.

Rajiv Gandhi was said to prefer a succinct note from his officials, summarising the contents of a file, so that he did not have to read it from first page to last.

I doubt if Atal Bihari Vajpayee perused files either, likely relying on his principal secretary Brajesh Mishra to do that for him, then listening closely to the counsel of his trusted advisors with those famous eyes shut, and then using his legendary political acumen to take decisions.

Had he not been tripped by an ambitious deputy -- who apparently never got over the grouse that the prime ministership was meant to be his, and he had thrust the older man into the office, because he was a far more acceptable figure to non-Hindutva India -- Vajpayee could have notched up more incredible feats as prime minister.

If Rahul Gandhi spurns the prime ministership -- that is, IF the Congress party and its allies win the next election -- I feel his proxy is unlikely to be P Chidambaram or A K Antony.

Manmohan Singh's virtue -- apart from his intelligence and years of government service -- was his loyalty. The mild-mannered Sardar was never going to challenge the Dynasty's hegemony; he would never conspire against Sonia Gandhi.

Dr Singh's ambitions are on a different road -- he genuinely wants to build a better, powerful, India, and he thinks that glory and genuine influence can only come if we are a strong economy, with growth rates that will have the world knocking at our door.

Few doubt Chidambaram's competence, but could Rahul ever go to sleep at night without worrying about the Chettiar's unbridled ambition? I doubt it.

Antony would be a Muddler as prime minister. His years at the defence ministry have done one thing -- no longer is fellow Malayali V K Krishna Menon seen as the worst defence minister India has had. Antony is a clear contender; he may not have lost a war like Menon, but the damage that he has reportedly done to the defence forces by his wishy-washiness may be difficult to address in the years to come.

While it would be wonderful to have a bright young politician like Sachin Pilot or Jyotiraditya Scindia as Rahul's premier, the chances are that Rahul will opt for Symbolism over Competence and Youth.

And what more potent symbol than a Dalit Lady Leader?

Meira Kumar, I believe, is the candidate to beat if the UPA has an unlikely third bash at power.

As Lok Sabha Speaker, her little girl voice (Bait Jaiye ye, please!) may be parodied, but the former Indian Foreign Service officer is unlikely to be an embarrassment like Sushilkumar Shinde who Sonia Gandhi was clearly auditioning for a promotion when she asked Dr Singh to appoint him as home minister last July.

And though she lacks the skill to be a big vote-catcher (that shouldn't be held against her, given Dr Singh's absence of appeal at the hustings) or an impressive counter to that Other Dalit Lady Leader, she would be a trusted pair of hands, having been a rather competent figure in the Speaker's chair.

The symbolism of the Congress entrusting the prime ministership to a Dalit Woman -- realising at one fell sweep Babasaheb Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram's dreams -- would not be lost on the Bahujan Samaj who would probably return to the party fold, something Rahul needs badly if he wants to make a mark in his dream project, Uttar Pradesh.

Meira Kumar would also be a difficult target for the BJP or NaMo to attack with vehemence and venom, the way they denounce Sonia and her son.

Prime Minister Meira Kumar would also address a historical injustice. In 1979, her father Babu Jagjivan Ram -- arguably, one of the most competent ministers in Independent India (remember, he was the defence minister in the 1971 war and is hailed for his leadership) -- was thwarted in his attempt to succeed Morarji Desai and Charan Singh as prime minister.

Then President Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy -- possibly the most political (and that is meant negatively) of all our Rashtrapatis -- denied Jagjivan Ram a legitimate opportunity to prove his majority in the Lok Sabha after promising him that chance, dissolving the House and provoking a mid-term election that returned Indira Gandhi to power.

When I told a friend at the current prime minister's office last month that he could be working for Prime Minister Meira Kumar next year, he texted, 'Not a chance that she will be PM.'

We will see.

One last prediction before I sign off. Watch out for a replay of 1984 in the next general election.

In that Lok Sabha election, Rajiv Gandhi, likely advised by his politically savvy cousin Arun Nehru, scuttled the elections of veterans like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna by fielding Madhavrao Scindia in Gwalior and Amitabh Bachchan in Allahabad respectively.

If Narendra Modi contests the next Lok Sabha election from Lucknow, as Sheela Bhatt first reported last May on Rediff.com, count on Rahul Gandhi requesting his friend Shah Rukh Khan to be the Congress candidate against the man who wants to be prime minister.

Meira Kumar's photograph: B Mathur/Reuters

Heptanesia Mumbaikar