Is it curtains for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh?
The answer is both yes and no, depending on how soon his replacement arrives – either in a couple of weeks or couple of years.
No matter which of the two options comes true, the political scene in India is going through a dynamic and interesting time. This is especially the case given the fact that Dr. Singh will likely retire as prime minister after 2014.
A first sign of upcoming changes in the post-Pranab Mukherjee United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government? The so-called crown prince of the Congress Party leadership, Rahul Gandhi, recently gave an indication of playing a larger role in the government.
Rahul has been a member of Indian Parliament’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, for eight years, but has consistently declined a ministerial or higher position in the government despite vocal demands from the party.
"I will play a more active role in the party and the government. The final decision is up to the Congress leadership," said Rahul at Parliament after voting in the presidential election. "The decision has been taken, the timing is up to the leadership," he elaborated while standing next to his mother, Congress Party President, Sonia Gandhi.
The move was immediately embraced by the Congress Party.
Within hours of Rahul’s remarks, the party’s General Secretary, Janardan Dwivedi, issued a brief statement, indicating that a new pecking order in the government as well as the party was just around the corner. “We will be very happy if Shri Rahul Gandhi takes on some more responsibility and it will be a very welcome step. What responsibility (whether in the Government or the Party) and when is up to the party leadership and Rahulji to decide,” Dwivedi announced.
The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), quickly jumped to downplay the importance of this move.
BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitaraman ridiculed Rahul: "It is obvious that there is no inner party democracy in the Congress. We have seen him testing his skills in Bihar, UP and also occasionally taking up as and when time permits the cause of dalits and Vedanta-affected tribals."
Rahul’s remarks are significant, as this is the first time he has stated his willingness to play a proactive role in government and in managing the party – especially when the second UPA coalition government has completed three years of its tenure, after completion of its full 5 year tenure by the first UPA coalition government.
Before the 2009 general election, there was a clamor within the party to go into the elections with Rahul as the declared prime ministerial candidate. However, Sonia Gandhi put her foot down and made it clear that Rahul was not yet ready, instead putting forward that the Congress Party would be contesting the 2009 general elections with Manmohan Singh as its prime ministerial candidate.
Digvijay Singh, a vociferous supporter of Rahul, said it was time that Rahul played a larger role: "Finally the time has come for him (Rahul) to assume a larger role… He had been confining himself to Youth Congress and the student wing of the party. He should come in the mainstream… This is the demand of all Congressmen. We all want that he works proactively."
If Rahul joins the government, there is a distinct possibility that he may join at the top level. If that case were to play out, it would not be the first time a person who never accepted any ministerial position became prime minister straightaway; Chandra Shekhar did so. However, Sonia Gandhi has gone on record saying several times that Singh will cover his full tenure.