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Manmohan’s will-he moment

- He will step aside before elections, say some ■No, he will not, say others

New Delhi, Dec. 30: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is said to be weighing the several pros and as many cons of stepping aside months before the Lok Sabha polls to facilitate Rahul Gandhi’s formal anointment at the top, according to sources. But others cautioned that the situation was still unfolding and can take a turn in any direction.

The Prime Minister could announce at a media conference early in the new year the less-unexpected decision of not seeking a third term but the big question is if he would make way before the elections.

It was more or less certain in the past two years that Singh would not be projected as the leader or even a part of the triumvirate (alongside Sonia Gandhi and Rahul) as he was in the run-up to the 2009 polls.

But opinion is sharply divided within the Congress on whether Rahul should replace Singh at the fag end of UPA II’s five-year term when the government and the party have become deeply unpopular or whether he should only be projected as the future Prime Minister in the unlikely event of the UPA returning to power for a third term.

Those ridiculing the idea of a change of guard at the eleventh hour cite the following points:

No point in Rahul hitching his stricken wagon to the cursed stars of UPA II.

The only takeaway from such a grafting will be the stained baggage of the scandals that marked the better part of the UPA’s second term.

A takeover now could be construed as a palace coup and an admission that Singh was a failure.

But those sensing that something is cooking list the “advantages” as they see them.

If Rahul takes charge when the going is the toughest, he can be projected as a leader who does not run away from unpleasant tasks. Perceived indecisiveness has been one of the biggest criticisms against the Singh government.

Manmohan has nothing to lose now. He has stuck by the government through thick and thin and during its worst moments. He could have easily jumped on to a moral high horse and quit long ago. Instead, he has effectively finished the assignment, can step aside gracefully now and mentor Rahul.

The immediate gain from such a handover will be a booster shot for the sagging morale of the party rank and file without whom the election cannot be fought. Even if the Congress loses the election, the prefix of “former Prime Minister” will be valuable to assert control over the party while sitting in the Opposition.

The Prime Minister, who had in the past kept the option of a third term open, is learnt to have conveyed to Sonia that he wants to be relieved. Whether Sonia will allow him to do so with a handful of months remaining for the second term to be over is the unknown factor that is playing on the minds of the very few people who think some big announcements are round the corner.

With the Congress rank and file clamouring for Rahul to be unambiguously declared the sole leader ahead of the polls, a formal decision is expected at the AICC session on January 17. But Singh may give a clear indication of the road map at his media conference expected to be held in the first week of January.

There are differences over the timing of Rahul’s anointment, but the party is unanimous that there should be no ambiguity over its candidate for Prime Minister this time round. The Congress has always claimed that it chooses the leader of its government (at the state level and at the Centre) after the elections and does not normally project a candidate before the polls.

But with the general election becoming increasingly presidential in nature, there is a growing realisation that the projection of a leader well in advance is essential.

This is even more unavoidable at the national level in the light of the Narendra Modi-centred campaign launched by the BJP. Without mentioning the Modi factor, P. Chidambaram today reflected the view of most in the Congress when he said the leader should be announced in advance.

“In my view, the party (Congress) should project a person as the leader of the party who will become Prime Minister if the party forms the government. That is my view, but it is for the party to decide,” PTI quoted Chidambaram as telling a television channel.

One reason for the ambiguity on the leadership question has been Rahul’s own oft-stated disdain for power and reluctance to take on major responsibility.

That seems to be changing and it will possibly be the key driver if Singh is toying with the idea of gracefully exiting the stage and giving up the role he was asked to play by Sonia so long as Rahul was not ready.

At the media conference, Singh is expected to strongly defend his government’s performance over the past decade and iterate his excellent rapport with Sonia. But he may make it clear that he wanted to call it a day. He may also suggest he will be available to groom and guide Rahul.

However, there are many others who feel the die has not been cast yet because the Congress has yet to reconcile several conflicting pulls and pressures.

Although Congress leaders want Rahul to be projected as the leader for the next election, they insist the party cannot afford to give any indication that it wanted to get rid of Singh.

“If we give the impression that we are dumping Manmohan, we will be sending a message that we accept the charge that he had become a liability. We can’t do that as we have to fight the next election on this government’s achievements. We don’t accept the BJP’s accusation that there is a policy paralysis and the government has failed. The process of transition should not look like a coup. Singh should stay as Rahul’s mentor, not look like bowing out under compulsion,” a senior Congress leader said.

Asked what was the logic behind the undeclared demand to appoint Rahul the Prime Minister barely a few months before the election, a leader said: “The main reason is that the demoralised party will get a fresh lease of life, workers all over the country will get rejuvenated. They will be ready for a fight to make Rahul the Prime Minister again, not for anybody else, including Singh. The other gain is that the leadership issue will be settled forever. Even if we lose the next election, Rahul as ‘former Prime Minister’ would be the supreme leader. This message is required to be sent out that Rahul is the future of the Congress.”

Party leaders contest the suggestion that appointing Rahul now would mean diluting the advantage of being an outsider and sharing the burden of anti-incumbency. They say the party is going through its worst crisis and Rahul taking centrestage now will be seen as a decisive step and bury the “outsider” perception that has crystallised around the young leader who is now gradually breaking out of a shell.

The theme at the AICC session is going to be Rahul’s leadership and there will be a chorus to declare him the Prime Minister candidate, this camp insists.

Under these circumstances, it would be wiser for Singh to signal his intention to step aside in advance. By doing that he would not only acquire the role of mentor-in-chief, but also align himself with the sentiment of the party workers who have made it clear to the leadership that only a drastic change can refurbish the badly bruised image of the Congress.

Many MPs have confessed in private conversations after the Assembly poll debacle that they have asked Rahul to accept the mantle of leadership without losing any further time.


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