| Working in tandem
Emerging reality invariably does not fit into the straitjacket of the past. The Congress-led coalition of Manmohan Singh is an unprecedented event in the history of the Congress as well as of India. There is no clear framework from the past in which this new animal at New Delhi can be analysed.
For the first time since the spat between the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Congress president, Acharya Kripalani, in 1947 which the party president lost, the executive head of the government will be subordinate to the organizational head of his party. There will be dual centres of power in this government — one in Manmohan Singh as the prime minister and another in Sonia Gandhi as the Congress president. Even in Parliament, the prime minister will not be the supreme leader of his party’s members of parliament. He will report to Sonia Gandhi, who has been hastily designated chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party.
The Congress has never led a coalition government at the Centre. It is not known to be accommodative, but it has now been forced to forge an alliance with its primary rivals. All this is unprecedented. This situation has discernible seeds of future crises, but it may also represent an opportunity.
Barely a year after Independence, an eminent Congress president, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, had summed up the relationship between the organization and the government saying, “The Congress is like a benevolent and elderly mother-in-law and the Government is like a tactful and young daughter-in-law. All the power in reality is vested in the latter through the husband. Yet she attempts — not merely affects — to obey her parents-in-law, while ultimately carrying out her will” (Presidential address at the Jaipur Congress, 1948). This is a real gender-bender in the context of today’s office-bearers in the party and the government, but the hope expressed is still quite clear.
Nehru, in a note to the party president, had argued for the freedom of the government to shape policies and act on them without referring every issue to the Congress Working Committee. An angry Kripalani wrote back to the CWC, “I do not see why important matters of policy which affect the economic future of this country and his [Nehru’s] political appointments like appointments of members of Central government and of ambassadors cannot be discussed. If the Working Committee either as a body or through its Parliamentary Committee is incompetent to discuss the composition of the new Dominion Government or the appointment of Governors in the provinces, then it might as well cease to be in its present form.”
Today the same issues have resurfaced in the Congress with changed dramatis personae and with differentpower equations. The top leadership is in the party. Her anointed prime minister is exceptionally honest and upright, but he is not a seasoned politician. His political stature is not larger than that of Sonia Gandhi.
The cabinet formation showed where power lay. These were unusual circumstances no doubt, but Manmohan Singh had to rush in and out of Sonia Gandhi’s residence several times a day. Karunanidhi decided to join the government only after Sonia Gandhi paid him a visit. Ramvilas Paswan’s sulk ended after V.P. Singh pleaded his case with Sonia Gandhi.
The Congress ministers who have found a berth in Manmohan Singh’s cabinet are all Sonia loyalists. It did not matter what reputation they enjoy in public or whether they have a mass base or not (most of them don’t; two in fact found Cabinet berths despite losing the Lok Sabha election). There is not a single Congress minister in the council who could either be called a Manmohan loyalist or Manmohan’s choice.
Would it be any surprise if the coming gubernatorial and ambassadorial appointments were cleared first by the Congress president' It would seem that Acharya Kripalani’s dream is finally being realized under Sonia Gandhi. And it is being realized manifold as this Congress president is also an MP. To ensure her supremacy even in parliament, the constitution of the CPP was hastily amended to create the post of a chairperson. Now, Manmohan Singh as the leader of the CPP will report even in parliament to Sonia Gandhi as its chairperson.
Perhaps there is no need yet to prejudge the issue of dual centres of power. Sonia Gandhi’s style of functioning has become democratic, consultative and collegial. However, while the pressure for dual power centres may not come from within the party, it may come from the coalition partners. They are competing for the same vote-bank and this will always be a source of potential instability for the Congress, especially at the time of state elections. There is no guarantee as yet that the coalition partners will take the prime minister’s word as final in all matters of concern to them.
Would Karunanidhi, Laloo Yadav and Ramvilas Paswan prefer to pick up the phone to Sonia Gandhi than to Manmohan Singh if their regional interests are at stake' It may also well be that soon, given prime ministerial schedules, it may be easier to see Sonia Gandhi than Manmohan Singh at short notice. Essentially, here would be a prime minister who would be constantly looking over his shoulder in dealing with the allies. However, there are two examples of how dual centres of power, working in tandem, can actually provide stability to a coalition government — that of the Left Front in West Bengal and of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. When Pramod Dasgupta was the state party general secretary and Jyoti Basu was the deputy chief minister (in the government of the Bangla Congress chief minister, Ajoy Mukherjee), Dasgupta handled the coalitional problems with partners while Basu dealt with governance issues. This lent stability to the coalition government. In Maharashtra, by keeping himself out of power, the Shiv Sena supreme, Bal Thackeray, has set himself apart to adjudicate on coalition issues with the Bharatiya Janata Party. His representatives in the executive were subservient to the party organization.
If the Congress party-leadership and its leadership in the government come to a similar division of labour, then Sonia Gandhi’s being out of power can actually lend stability to Manmohan Singh’s coalition government. She has already shown her ability to handle the allies and has earned their respect by her renunciation of power, which the executive branch of the party would take years to achieve. Sonia Gandhi can then be accountable to the party for ensuring the success of the coalition experiment and Manmohan Singh can be the implementer of policy.
Manmohan Singh is not an adversarial personality. If he develops the discipline to implement the decisions of the coalition even if he disagrees with them at times, his ability to govern would be strengthened. The Left Front and the Shiv Sena can provide better inspiration for the division of labour between the party organization and the government (hopefully without also imbibing their authoritarian aspects) for the Congress.