| Chosen one
In the six years that the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power in New Delhi, political analysts often asked themselves the question: is the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, his own man, or is he merely a puppet in the hands of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh' At times, he appeared to be very much his own man — as in the attempts to forge a lasting peace with Pakistan. At other times, he appeared to be a captive of the RSS — as in his unwillingness to punish Narendra Modi despite the evidence of massive state collusion in the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002. One could never quite decide how autonomous Vajpayee was in his functioning. At one moment, the evidence was that the prime minister cared little for the khaki-clad elders of the sangh; the next moment it seemed that he acted at their behest.
One can be certain that so long as Manmohan Singh is prime minister, both analyst and layperson will ask themselves the question: is he his own man, or is he a vehicle for the ideas and ambitions of Sonia Gandhi' As with Vajpayee and the RSS, the early indications are that we shall never have a conclusive answer. That is, the evidence shall point first one way, then the other — and sometimes even both ways at once. Thus, the first round of diplomatic appointments were clearly the handiwork of 10, Janpath. The new ambassador to Washing- ton and the new high commissioner to London have two things in common — both are plodding, cautious, undistinguished career diplomats, and both have long been known to be Rajiv Gandhi (and, by extension, Sonia Gandhi) loyalists.
On the other hand, in his first address to the nation, the new prime minister acted on his own authority alone. There were two striking things about the address. One was substantive, the focus on agriculture and employment generation. As the acknowledged architect of the economic reforms of the Nineties, Singh can feel justly proud of the creative energies they unleashed in the service and industrial sectors. But, as a thinking economist, he can see that the reforms have left vast areas of the economy untouched, and that in some sectors they have even had a deleterious effect. India shone for the software professionals of Bangalore, but not for the cotton-farmers of Rayalseema. To deepen the process of economic reform, while more widely distributing the gains of economic growth, were thus stated by Singh as the chief goals of the new government.
The prime minister’s address was notable for its symbolism as well. Only one other Indian was quoted in it: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Thus Singh referred to the Mahatma’s famous “talisman”; that every act of a public servant should keep in mind its likely impact on the poorest of the poor. He quoted the Mahatma, while speaking in front of a portrait of the Mahatma. One could not help but notice the Indians who went unmentioned in his speech. Were Singh truly a chamcha of the Congress president, surely there would have been a reference to the unfinished dreams of Rajiv Gandhi, or to the legacy of Indira Gandhi' That the prime minister did not refer to either seemed a clear indication of his intellectual autonomy and integrity.
Singh regards Mahatma Gandhi as the greatest of all Indians. So, apparently, does Sonia Gandhi. Or at least her speech-writers do so. Recall the dramatic renunciation, which was a manifestation, she said, of her “inner voice”. The phrase is the Mahatma’s; he too was guided, at key political moments, by that voice. Recall also that after meeting the president to inform him that Singh, and not she, would be the prime minister, Mrs Gandhi told the assembled newscameras that “the country will be safe in his hands”. Most of the journalists present probably did not realize that the phrasing, if not the sentiments, was somewhat unoriginal. Indeed, it was a straight copy of a remark once made by Mahatma Gandhi about Jawaharlal Nehru: “The nation is safe in his hands”.
There are men in Sonia Gandhi’s inner circle who are among the best read of Indian politicians. The phrases “inner voice” and “the country will be safe in his hands” were very likely their handiwork. From this it might seem that Mrs Gandhi wants to be seen somewhat as the Mahatma to Singh’s Nehru. If a historical comparison is to be made, however, it should rather be with Vallabhbhai Patel. Between 1947 and 1950, while Jawaharlal Nehru was the head of government, he was never quite in control of the Congress. It was Patel who was the party boss.
The existence of dual power centres often led to clashes between the two stalwarts. Usually, it was Patel who won. When Nehru wanted C. Rajagopalachari to be the first president of India, Patel successfully rallied the Congress members of parliament around his candidate, Rajendra Prasad. When Nehru supported Acharya Kripalani for the presidency of the Congress, Patel was able to persuade the majority of the AICC members to vote for his choice, Purushottam Tandon. Thus, Patel made sure that the head of state and the head of the party were both men who would follow his “line” rather than Nehru’s. Moreover, as home minister, Patel was able to place, in key positions, officials handpicked by himself.
In the same manner, Sonia Gandhi will put, in positions of authority and power, men and women who are her choice rather than the prime minister’s. There is, however, one difference: whereas in Patel’s case he rewarded colleagues who were ideologically close to him, in Mrs Gandhi’s case preference shall be based principally on personal loyalty.
After Patel’s death, in December 1950, Nehru moved swiftly to take control of the party. Tandon was removed as Congress president; to be replaced by the prime minister himself. Nehru remained in that post until 1954. Then he gave it up, while ensuring that future Congress presidents would be subordinate to the prime minister. The lesson was not lost on his daughter. In the first few years of her prime ministership, Indira Gandhi was often hampered in her work by the so-called “Syndicate”, the group of much older men who controlled the Congress. In 1969, she split the party, if only to better control it. From then until her death fifteen years later, the office of the Congress president was held either by Indira Gandhi or by an accredited sycophant.
Singh’s situation, or should we say predicament, is thus broadly comparable to Jawaharlal Nehru’s situation between 1947 and 1950, or Indira Gandhi’s between 1966 and 1969. Then too the prime minister did not “control” his own party. But unlike Nehru or Indira Gandhi, it is difficult to imagine the gentle Singh taking on his party boss. To be fair, Sonia Gandhi is no Patel or Kamaraj either. On both sides, the protagonists are far less truculent than their predecessors. This makes it more likely that there will be no definitive clash of wills, resulting in an unambiguous verdict in favour of one side or the other. Rather, for the duration of this government, we will continue to have what are, in effect, dual power centres.
The new government has been in office for less than two months. It is in these early days that the Congress president will exercise most influence, by the rewarding of her chosen loyalists with the loaves and fishes of office. But as time goes by, her influence may well recede. On matters of economic or social policy, one cannot see her advising the prime minister what to do. In this respect, Singh is luckier than Vajpayee. For the RSS wanted people it trusted in positions of authority, and it wanted them to implement policies of their choosing as well.