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PC, Manmohan, Antony: Who'll be Rahul's PM choice?

Last updated on: March 6, 2013 11:49 IST

Race for PM in Rahul's absence: PC might have the edge

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Sunita Moga

Congress circles have started speculating about who could possibly be Rahul Gandhi's prime ministerial choice in the remote possibility that the UPA gets the numbers to form a government for the third time in 2014. The three names which are being mentioned in this connection are Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram and A K Antony. Sunita Moga reports.

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday virtually set the cat among the pigeons when he declared that he was not interested in becoming the country's prime minister as he wants to focus on strengthening the party organisation.

Naturally, his remarks created a flutter among the Congress cadres who are totally dependent on the Gandhi family for their survival.

It took the dazed Congress rank and file some time to accept an
"outsider" Manmohan Singh as the country's prime minister after party president Sonia Gandhi refused to accept the top post in 2004 when the United Progressive Alliance ousted the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance to form the government.

Today, as an unhappy party braces up for a re-run of the same scene, Congress circles have started speculating about who could possibly be Rahul Gandhi's prime ministerial choice in the remote possibility that the UPA gets the numbers to form a government for the third time in 2014.

The three names which are being mentioned in this connection are: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister P Chidambaram and Defence Minister A K Antony. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has recently, during a media interaction, didn't rule out the possibility of Dr Singh's re-nomination for the top post.

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Image: Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi
Photographs: Jayanta Dey/Reuters
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Frail health may go against Manmohan Singh

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There is a section in the Congress party which believes that Manmohan Singh could get third time lucky as he will be at the helm when the party heads into the next Lok Sabha election and Sonia Gandhi might play it safe and continue with the status quo.

However, Manmohan Singh's advancing years and frail health may not allow him to take on the burden of heading a brittle coalition for the third consecutive term.

Besides, the party may want a younger person to occupy the top post in an effort to enhance its appeal to the growing vocal and assertive youth who would clearly like to see a strong and decisive leader to head the country.

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Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
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Chidambaram is Rahul Gandhi's Manmohan Singh

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In such a situation, the name of Chidambaram comes to mind as he is being billed in party circles as Rahul Gandhi's Manmohan Singh. In fact, speculation about "Chidambaram as PM" has been rife even before Rahul Gandhi declared on Tuesday that he is not in the game for power or posts. London-based The Economist had run a story discussing the prospects of Chidambaram as PM.

Chidambaram has been assiduously positioning himself as the first among equals for the past year and the party has done nothing to discourage him.

On the contrary, the party has gone out of its way to protect him. This was evident during the raging controversy over the allocation of 2G spectrum when Chidambaram's name was dragged into it and the matter was also taken to court.

The Congress and the entire UPA government went out on a limb to give Chidambaram a clean chit. Similarly, a senior leader like Pranab Mukherjee was forced to apologise to Chidambaram in public when a document on 2G spectrum allocation emanating from the Mukherjee-headed finance ministry said that Chidambaram had opposed the auction route.

Chidambaram has a lot going for him. He is clever, has a reputation of being an extremely efficient administrator and an excellent parliamentarian. Also, his knowledge of law and finances is a deadly combination.

His management of the country's finances, especially during the UPA I regime, are written and spoken about in glowing terms, his handling of the Union home ministry during a particularly tough period has also come in for a lot of praise.

Most importantly, the finance minister is no mass leader and has no political base which suits the Gandhi family as he will not pose a challenge to it.

But for all his virtues, Chidambaram has not endeared himself to his own colleagues who often describe him as "arrogant" and lacking in humility. He doesn't have his ears on grounds.

Chidambaram did make an effort to become a "people's person" during his stint in the home ministry. However, several of his pet schemes, like the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, met with stiff opposition from equally strong regional satraps like Chief Ministers Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Narendra Modi and J Jayalalithaa

"As finance minister, he was used to chief ministers and central ministers approaching him for funds while he was in the driver's seat. It was during his stint in the home ministry that Chidambaram realised that he could not always have his way. This forced him to improve his people's skills," remarked a senior UPA leader.

However, his colleagues are convinced that this "show of humility" is only a temporary phase.

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'Clean' Antony might lose out in days of social media

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Defence Minister A K Antony is also mentioned as a possible prime ministerial candidate as he is known for his proximity to the Gandhi family. Antony's clean image and low-key manner work in his favour.

Antony is called in by Sonia Gandhi whenever there is a crisis in the organisation as she is said to trust him implicitly. He also heads several key party committees and only recently, Antony was named convenor of a panel which has been entrusted with the task of forging alliances in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Antony's problem is that he is not action-oriented in days of social media where news spreads in nano-second.

When Sonia Gandhi went abroad for medical treatment last year, she had set up a four-member committee to handle party affairs in her absence. Nobody was surprised that Antony was heading this panel while Pranab Mukherjee, who was seen as the party's troubleshooter, was excluded from this panel.

When Mukherjee left the government to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan, Antony was promoted as number two in the UPA government, much to the chagrin of Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar.

Antony may, however, lose out as he is a Christian. However, it is also the fact that in the Congress Working Committee deliberations, he has shown the amazing clarity in understanding psyche of the Hindu voters.


Photographs: Tim Chong/Reuters
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