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Exclusive: Watch out Dr Singh, Sonia's coming

Last updated on: August 25, 2009 11:12 IST
Sheela Bhatt reveals how Sonia Gandhi has decided to take an active role in governance with the resurrection of the powerful National Advisory Council. A rediff exclusive:

A big change in the power equation at the top is likely to arrive soon as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government completes 100 days in office this week.

The Supreme Court delivered a judgment on Monday in the case concerning Congress President Sonia Gandhi and 50 others related to the 'office-of-profit' issue. The case was filed in 2006 by Dinesh Trivedi, then a MP and now a Union minister of state, and the Consumer Education and Research Society.

Trivedi and his lawyer Harish Salve confirmed to rediff.com that the judgment, that had been kept reserved since 2008, was delivered on Monday. They said the copy of the judgment has not been given to them yet.

An important fallout of the judgment is that it clears the way for Sonia Gandhi to revive the National Advisory Council, which functioned as an "important centre of power" till the office-of-profit controversy arrived. According to Congress sources, the NAC will be revived soon. Sonia Gandhi as its chairperson is expected to have the status of Union Cabinet minister.

Another Congress source, who is currently involved in the revamping of many ministries, told rediff.com, "This time, the NAC is likely to have an "emphasis on technology instead of the social sector."

Before understanding the political importance of the NAC's revival, one should look at the Prime Minister's Office.

When the United Progressive Alliance was re-elected to power in May some Congress leaders credited the victory to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. They argued that voters has rejected the Bharatiya Janata Party's aggressive campaign, projecting L K Advani and Narendra Modi as likely prime ministers, in favour of the maturity of Dr Singh and Sonia Gandhi.

It was also argued that the economic downturn had inspired voters to retain the economy in Dr Singh's experienced and tested hands. The prime minister and his advisors were delighted that Dr Singh was the first Congress leader after Jawaharlal Nehru to be re-elected to the top post.

On May 22, when Dr Singh was sworn in as prime ministers, things looked upbeat for the UPA government, hopeful and impressive. The Opposition parties were stunned by their defeat. For the first time, Congressmen were in awe of Dr Singh for his unyielding political stand in spite of many odds.

His party had considered him "apolitical" for many years, but after winning the 2009 election he was honoured as "non-confrontalist and non-comprising." The hurrahs were well-deserved because the new government was free from the burden of confronting the Left parties's agenda day in and day out.

More importantly, during and after the election, Dr Singh was endorsed by Sonia Gandhi and the party's powerful General Secretary Rahul Gandhi. On the issues of the economy, the nuclear deal with the United States and energy security, Dr Singh and Rahul Gandhi appeared to be on the same page.

Of the three power centres -- the prime minister, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi -- two formed a clear majority on vital issues of national interest. In the public perception, the equation amongst the trio was picture perfect; the three leaders were riding on the people's expectations.

There was a sense of business about Dr Singh's government.

As a bonus to the Congress party and the UPA government, the BJP was fast slipping into a mess which will take it months, if not years, to recover. Till the BJP's "transition of generation" reaches its logical conclusion, one was led to believe that Prime Minister Singh would have total freedom to set the agenda.

After all, this time he was not "nominated" in the same sense he actually was in May 2004. This time, he had "earned" his position after performing his responsibilities.

In spite of its history-making moments the government is stable, but has not made waves so far. The list of its woes expands every day, although not always because of its fault.

As Jaswant Singh, that hurt fall-guy of the BJP, told a press conference in the wake of the explusion from his party, that 'dal is Rs 100 a kilo!' A senior Congressman told rediff.com, "The government is looking around the world searching for rice and dal exporting countries. The population has increased and there are very few countries growing dal."

The government's woes began much before the gloomy spectre of drought arrived.

When Dr Singh was forming his government, the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham and Trinmool Congress made things difficult for him. The prime minister had to succumb to DMK pressure and retain A Raja as telecommunications minister. Raja's decision in the previous UPA government to allocate 2G mobile spectrum on a first-come-first-served basis is under scrutiny.

Then came the revelation by Railways Minister Mamta Banerjee that the rail ministry, under her predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav, had fudged figures to show huge profits.

While speaking on the Railway Budget in the Lok Sabha on July 10, she created a stir when she said the Railways's cash surplus was a mere Rs 8,361 crore (Rs 83.61 billion). Lalu Yadav had claimed the Railways had a cash surplus of Rs 88,946 crore (Rs 889.46 billion) during his tenure.

Dr Singh has refused to comment on the issue and a five member Railways team is investigating the issue.

Another shock came in the form of gigantic losses involving Air India and Indian Airlines. During the UPA government's last term the National Aviation Company of India was formed after merging Air India and Indian Airlines.

As the UPA version 2.0 came to power, the skeletons tumbled out from Praful Patel's aviation ministry.

'As per provisional estimates, NACIL is expected to register a loss of approximately Rs 5,000 crore (Rs 50 billion) in 2008-09, largely due to high operating expenses, which have been compounded due to the present economic recession resulting in a drop in passengers,' Patel said in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha on July 7, 2009.

When Air India and Indian Airlines were merged, it was said the strategic merger would benefit both airlines. The combined loss of both airlines during the merger in 2007 was only Rs 740 crores (Rs 7.4 billion).

Another fiasco for the government came a day after Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal announced a half-baked education policy when his ministerial colleague Jairam Ramesh criticised the new measures.

Some experts alleged that Sibal tried to corner the limelight without doing enough homework.

Another debacle that is not being talked about is the promise of many ministries that they would show some impressive results within 100 days.

The '100 days agenda' became a buzzword with the Press Information Bureau -- the government's information arm -- issuing media releases from various ministries. Now ministers and officials are silent about these claims as the 100 days deadline approaches.

The shelving of the Land Acquisition bill has revealed that Mamta Banerjee is the new 'Left' element inside the government. The Congress hopes her populist instincts will survive only till the assembly election in West Bengal two years hence.

The real shortcoming of the UPA government is that it does not have enough able and experienced individuals to head ministries. Besides Dr Singh, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram are considered seasoned administrators who are doing well. A minister in Gujarat recently praised the home minister's functioning in a conversation with this correspondent.

The biggest problem for the prime minister is that he does not have enough control over non-Congress ministers, an issue that bothered him during his last tenure as well.

A big turning point for the new government came when one witnessed a sophisticated tussle between the newly formed government and the Congress party, the dominant component of the UPA.

When Prime Minister Singh issued the joint statement in Egypt with his Pakistani counterpart Reza Yousuf Gilani, New Delhi knew where the centre of power truly lay.

The controversy regarding the 'de-linking of terrorism' issue and the inclusion of Baluchistan in the statement created pressure on the PMO.

The euphoria of May 2009 quickly receded. A reality check had become necessary for the prime minister. The Congress party asserted itself when a few hours after Dr Singh's arrival from the Non Aligned Movement summit in Egypt, Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel met the prime minister.

The following day the Congress president met Dr Singh to discuss the joint statement with Pakistan. The prime minister had clarified the issue of de-linking terrorism even before his arrival in India, but no convincing explanation has come about why it was necessary to insert Baluchistan into the joint statement.

In the last five years Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh's jugalbandi has presented the picture of a perfect professional relationship, but by not providing any reaction in Dr Singh's support on his ambitious moves with Pakistan, Sonia Gandhi eloquently spoke her mind.

A senior official, who works with Dr Singh, says any pereception of distance between the Congress president and the prime minister is a figment of imagination on the media's party. "Jo ho nahin sakta woh PM kabhi sochte nahin! (The prime minister will not even think what cannot happen)."

"During the Cabinet formation," this civil servant reveals, "it was said the PM wanted (current Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission) Montek Singh Ahluwalia as finance minister. The PM knows his party well (that it would not want Ahluwalia as finance minister), so Dr Singh never talked about him."

"The government," the civil servant adds, "is positively worrying about people's expectations. It will take two years to put into action the agenda of UPA II. The government's focus is now on improving the delivery mechanisms to the people."

The optimism is logical since there are no road blocks in the government's way from the Left parties. The prime minister is bullish because the economic downturn now seems to be in its final stages. Also, there is nobody to challenge him or unseat him from within the Congress party. It is a huge difference compared to UPA I where the Congress party had to constantly mediate between the Prime Minister's Office and the Left parties over the Common Minimum Programme.

Just when everything seemed fine for Dr Singh, the NAC will come to be formed soon.

The NAC is expected to monitor government programmes and provide inputs for formulation of government policy. Surely, Chidambaram and other legal brains in the party and government will find a Constitutional way to award Cabinet minister status to Sonia Gandhi.

Also, when Prime Minister Singh thinks in terms of making history his party will look for a most appropriate entry point for Rahul Gandhi. As of today, by all accounts, that possibility will not occur soon, but clearly the Congress party would like to consolidate its win of May 2009 by providing proper governance to people so that the circumstances remains suitable for Rahul Gandhi should he need to make an emergency landing at the power centre.

An astute political observer notes, "When the prime minister thinks of the history books and his reputation beyond his tenure, it is just not possible that the Congress party can allow Rahul Gandhi to turn into a side show."

In the last five years the ruling Congress trio has shown remarkable mastery in sharing power without providing the media any spectacle of dissension. But things cannot be taken for granted. The fall-out of the joint statement with Pakistan has revealed that Dr Singh and his party were not on the same page.

The Congress wants to put in place a mechanism so that it benefits when the prime minister and government does something substantial about good governance. The establishment of the NAC will ensure this as it did during the UPA government's last tenure.

During the Budget session of Parliament, a senior Congress MP told rediff.com: "We are watching. Let us see how, when and where the centre of power shifts. The government is stable, but Rahul Gandhi is getting involved in more and more decisions."

Within the Congress party there are now two groups. One revolves around Sonia Gandhi, the party president; the other group operates around her son Rahul Gandhi. There has been no confrontation between the two groups thus far, but both entities, clearly different in composition, do not often interact.

In view of these emerging trends though the government looks highly stable and quite active, one is not able to judge if the prime minister will have more power or less than he had during his first tenure, between 2004 and 2009. However, the events and results of 2009 has shown that you can't take Mammohan Singh for granted.