The shadow of Manmohan Singh on a wall during his media conference where he announced he would pass the baton to a new Prime Minister after the general election. Singh defended his record in governance, rejected the charge that he had been a weak Prime Minister and promised better times ahead. (PTI picture)
New Delhi, Jan. 3: The Congress appears to have treated Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s announcement that he was not available for a third term as a fait accompli and explicitly indicated that Rahul Gandhi would be the next prime ministerial candidate.
With Manmohan’s exit from the post-poll scenario in 2014, the Congress has tried to kill speculation about his replacement and the possibility of a third contender that a badly fractured mandate could throw up. However, since the party does not want any uncertainty about leadership in the run-up to the election, an unambiguous message would be delivered that Rahul would head the next government.
Barely a couple of hours after the Prime Minister’s news conference, Janardan Dwivedi, the general secretary in charge of party organisation, said: “It is common knowledge that Rahul is the supreme leader after Sonia Gandhi… every Congress worker wants Rahul to become Prime Minister. But till a decision is taken, we won’t speak about it.”
Responding to related queries on Rahul, he said: “There is a principle and there is a ritual. In principle, you all know Rahul is the leader. But a formality is required and Sonia Gandhi has herself said the name of the Prime Minister candidate will be announced at an opportune time.”
On the possibility of a third alternative other than Rahul, he said: “This is an unnecessary question.”
Many senior leaders informally said there was no question of picking another candidate and Rahul would be the only choice if the party decided to declare its candidate in advance. But they conceded that Rahul would not like to head a rag-tag coalition and the leadership question would be revisited after the election.
“We are going to fight the poll under Rahul’s leadership, there is no if and but on this,” a key party strategist asserted.
Asked if projecting Rahul was not fraught with risk in the hostile atmosphere created by the Assembly poll debacle, Dwivedi said: “This is a narrow vision. We have survived over 125 years as a party only because we don’t get rattled by adverse situations. We have won several elections under extremely trying conditions.”
The party has called an AICC meeting on January 17, where Rahul would likely be declared the prime ministerial candidate. Some leaders feel the decision should be made earlier, but the dominant view is that the mega-gathering was the best platform to take such a big decision.
The intervening period could be used to collect resolutions from state units demanding Rahul’s projection. The Mahila Congress has declared its intention to bring a resolution at the AICC session. If Rahul formally gets that position on January 17, the party can use the passage of pending anti-corruption legislation and a populist vote-on-account to build his leadership.
On the BJP’s criticism of Manmohan’s news conference, Dwivedi said: “This is nothing new. They… have been saying all this for far too long.”
He reacted sharply to questions about a dual power centre. “It is wrong to use this phrase. Parties fight elections and elect their leader of the legislature. The government is the party’s government and is expected to implement the party’s policies. While the Prime Minister is accountable to the nation and has the autonomy to work, the party’s authority cannot be undermined. The party never interferes in day-to-day activities of the government. The two authorities walk parallel and there is no conflict,” he said.
Many senior leaders appreciated Manmohan’s tact and maturity in handling difficult questions, particularly the relationship with Sonia. They said Sonia and Manmohan maintained the highest standard of courtesy and respect in their relationship despite differences.
Manmohan also drew applause for making a lethal attack on the BJP’s Prime Minister candidate, Narendra Modi.
From senior leaders to ordinary workers, all recalled how the reticent Manmohan had hit “Iron Man” L.K. Advani where it hurt most by recalling his reaction when the Babri Masjid was being razed. Manmohan used the same tactic against Modi, questioning whether “strength” meant presiding over riots.
External affairs minister Salman Khurshid gave voice to the feeling in the party, saying: “He is only expressing what we all feel very passionately as far as Rahul Gandhi is concerned, and very strongly and bitterly as far as Narendra Modi is concerned.”
Khurshid said: “We are grateful to the Prime Minister that he has on a pan-India stage expressed what we have felt for a long time.”
He also lauded Manmohan’s persona, saying: “We have had unique privilege and honour to have served with such a remarkable man and a gentle soul and, of course, an economic genius through very difficult times. We still have the last lap to run. The victory lap is yet to be run.”
Khurshid’s sentiments are likely to be echoed forcefully at the AICC session as Manmohan has paved the way for a smooth transition and at an ideal time. Senior leaders reveal the party would strongly defend his track record, his own performance and promise to build on the achievements of the two UPA regimes.