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The Manmohan jigsaw

New Delhi, May 18: Sonia Gandhi today saved her likely successor Manmohan Singh from possible embarrassment of declining the Prime Minister’s job.

Manmohan Singh’s crowning had figured in Sonia’s original script but the AICC chief sensed the overwhelming sentiment of the Congress Parliamentary Party to reconsider her decision.

Any move to formally name her successor today evening would have created more problems for her than solving them. Given the overall spirit of the CPP in which Manmohan Singh is an active partner, he may have declined the offer.

Manmohan Singh has utmost regard for his party boss but like any party leader or MP, he is convinced that the office of Prime Minister should stay with her.

Sonia is unlikely to oblige the CPP. Therefore, it is merely a matter of time before Manmohan Singh is named the nominee for Prime Minister. In party circles, Manmohan Singh is a favourite of sorts among the “lesser mortals” (the league that does not have the Nehru-Gandhi surname).

To the outside world, Manmohan Singh has an image of an economic theoretician, a man known for his integrity and poise. Within the Congress, he is also a popular figure.

First, Manmohan Singh stays away from factional politics. He has always been by Sonia’s side but yet nobody ever dubbed him a part of any “coterie.” Congressmen feel that if Singh is named Sonia’s successor tomorrow, the markets would also be enthused.

By late tonight, reality was sinking in after Priyanka declared that Sonia never wanted to be Prime Minister. Congressmen said they could now piece together why Sonia always kept Manmohan Singh by her side. Manmohan Singh was made chairman, strategy committee, ahead of a group of thoroughbred politicians like Pranab Mukherjee and Arjun Singh.

In Rajya Sabha, too, Sonia had made it a point to appoint him leader of the Opposition. Sometimes, backbenchers used to wonder why Sonia had promoted a rather “apolitical” person in a House where the ruling NDA was in a minority.

Manmohan Singh’s stint as finance minister during the Narasimha Rao regime may have won many laurels but inside Congress, not everyone was happy. A party panel headed by A.K. Antony, which had looked into the poll debacle, had even held the pace of economic reforms as one of the factors responsible.

But Sonia would have none of it. Manmohan Singh’s criticism was not tolerated at any level. Soon word got out to be “careful” with him. On his part, Manmohan Singh, too, showed exemplary conduct and did not let Sonia down. He quickly came to her rescue whenever she needed his help or support. The two functioned as a team that enjoyed instant rapport and understood each other well.

Both are reticent, hate media glare and avoid the old political culture of flattery and false promises. These attributes are bound to pose problems for Singh in case he becomes Prime Minister.

Sonia enjoys a much higher stature and Congress leaders would not have dared to oppose or criticise her. Manmohan Singh may not have that luxury.

It was perhaps an isolated incident but indicative of problems ahead. This evening, Manmohan Singh’s car was entering 10 Janpath when a small group of Congress workers tried to block his car in a bid to heckle him. Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was close by, came to Manmohan Singh’s rescue.

Manmohan Singh would need Sonia much more than when he was under her shadow. To the outside world, he may be the public face, but Sonia will be seen as controlling the remote. If the two gel well, the Congress fortunes would go up as the professional in Manmohan Singh will run the country and organisational matters will be looked after by Sonia.

This may sound well on paper but in the treacherous political waters, the sharks within the party are waiting to strike. Several “CWC stalwarts” met one another minutes after it became clear that Sonia would not be Prime Minister. If Sonia delays an announcement, the sharks will smell blood.

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