In politics, perception and symbolism can sometimes matter more than reality. In India, despite Manmohan Singh being the official head of India’s government, it’s popularly perceived that the Nehru-Gandhi family holds the real authority. And if recent speculation surrounding prime minister-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi is correct, the rising politician is already having a major say in some of the key policy initiatives of the Congress-led government in New Delhi.
Take the case of the proposed development of Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa. A contract given to Vedanta, a UK-based multinational company, to build bauxite mines in the area was revoked in August when Rahul took up the issue of tribal land rights and the serious environmental hazards posed by the project. His stand was endorsed by his mother and Congress President Sonia Gandhi (in her bi-monthly magazine, Sandesh, she praised her son for standing up for Orissa’s tribal communities and fighting for their rights).
A few weeks ago, Rahul again made his views known publicly, this time in an uprising by farmers of western Uttar Pradesh who were demanding better compensation for acquisition of their lands and protesting the Land Acquisition Bill, which they accuse of favouring industry over farmers’ rights.
And now, Rahul has come to the defence of the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, who is currently under fire from opponents and congressmen alike for his alleged mishandling of the tense situation in the region. Gandhi has stated that Abdullah, in his admittedly tough job, should be given more time to manage the situation in the troubled valley.
The stand taken by Rahul Gandhi vis-à-vis Abdullah is considered more authoritative than the word of the Cabinet Committee of Security and, according to political analysts, Rahul’s recent interventions on various key policy issues suggest that Singh might now be taking a backseat, preparing the ground for the expected future PM after the general elections in 2014.
This is all happening against the backdrop of congressmen increasingly tending to look towards Sonia and Rahul Gandhi for direction over Singh. The Gandhi family wields seemingly unlimited power in India, yet without always taking full responsibility. The public, meanwhile, is also inclined to believe what the Gandhis say, often over the government’s word.
What does all this mean? Some decry such power being held by the Congress’ head and her son as a dangerous trend and suggest that it would be better for Rahul to just take control of the government rather than directing it from the sidelines. And, despite Singh’s honesty and dedication, it's clear India today faces a situation in which the prime minister’s authority has been eroded, and the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi appears more powerful than the Cabinet.
With all this going on, it’s no wonder ministers and Congress party members in today’s government are so divided on important issues. Congressman Digvijay Singh, for instance, simply keeps contradicting Home Minister P Chidambaram on the issue of the Maoist threat in the country. Meanwhile, important legislation on education has, despite getting the nod in the lower house, been nixed in the upper house not by the opposition but by the intervention of some senior leaders of the ruling party who claim loyalty to the Gandhi family.
There is a popular perception that this internal challenge to the present government is happening with the knowledge and backing of the Gandhi family, and the first family of India isn't making any attempt to clear the air of the confusion that seems to be gripping the second term of the United Progressive Alliance regime led by Singh.
For now, India today appears to be a nation torn between popular perception and reality.