For the first time since the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to power seven years ago, the winds of political change have started blowing. A transfer of power appears imminent both in the Congress party and the government (although the latter may take a little more time). India’s so-called crown prince, Rahul Gandhi, is preparing to lead the party.
The symbolic turning point within the Congress party is expected to be August 15 – Indian Independence Day. Rahul, one of a number of general secretaries in the Congress, is expected to unfurl the national flag at the party’s headquarters in Delhi. This has become necessary because Rahul’s mother, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, has undergone major surgery in a US hospital, and is unlikely to be returning home before the end of the month.
It has been a Congress tradition that the party president unfurls the national flag at party headquarters, while the prime minister does the honours on behalf of the nation at the historic Red Fort. But Sonia’s absence left the Congress in a quandary. A core group of the party met on August 7 under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at his official residence. The Congress party’s main trouble-shooter, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, attended the meeting along with Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Congress General Secretary and Chief Spokesman Janardhan Dwivedi and Sonia’s political secretary, Ahmed Patel.
The upshot of the meeting is that Rahul will be unfurling the national flag, a momentous decision that sends a clear message over who is next in command after Sonia. The arrangement also marks a departure from the tradition of the most senior member of the party undertaking the task in the president’s absence. This would usually have been Mukherjee, a key member of the government, but this is the second time in a week Mukherjee has been bypassed, following Sonia’s decision last week not to include him in the so-called group of four that was established to run party affairs in her absence.
Apart from the fact that the Congress is keen to inject some new blood at the top by officially making Rahul the party number two, the move is also clearly a vote of no-confidence in Mukherjee. Why? Well, the Congress is very sensitive to questions of loyalty, and the family hasn’t forgotten Mukherjee’s previous ambitions. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated at her official residence in New Delhi by her own bodyguards on October 31, 1984, her son Rajiv Gandhi was hurriedly chosen to lead the party and government. Mukherjee rebelled and quit the Congress to join a rival faction that proved to be rudderless. Mukherjee re-joined the Congress a few years later, but the political damage was already done.
Sonia has been president of the Congress for nearly 12 years, making hers the longest uninterrupted tenure since Indira Gandhi. It took her over five years to guide her party back to power, and she would no doubt have continued but for the apparent suddenness of her medical condition. Although the party hasn’t specified the nature of her ailment, there’s much speculation that she has been suffering from abdominal cancer.
Ideally, Sonia would have waited for the outcome of elections in India’s largest and politically most important state of Uttar Pradesh, due in the second quarter of next year. Rahul was anyway tipped to take the Congress party’s reins after the UP polls, but this timetable is set to be brought forward. The Congress may now get some added leverage in the UP polls with Rahul as Congress president. But if the Congress doesn’t do well in the elections despite this boost, Rahul’s prime ministerial plans may be jeopardized.