NEWS ANALYSIS A senior functionary hints that the circumstances in 2014 might be such that the Congress might be compelled to announce its prime ministerial candidate

As the impending reshuffle in both the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and party draws near, the crescendo of voices demanding that Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi be assigned a “larger” and more “decisive” role is growing. However, senior party sources confirmed that he was not going to become working president, as was being speculated.

Indeed, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh – one of the many leaders who have been publicly demanding a larger role for the party’s yuvraj – said on Monday that Congress president Sonia Gandhi “would lead the party campaign in 2014,” as she had done in 2004 and 2009. Another senior functionary, affirming this, indicated, however, that the circumstances in 2014 might be such that the Congress, abandoning past practice, might be compelled to announce its prime ministerial candidate.

In 2004, Ms. Gandhi had led the Congress election campaign and it was assumed that she was the prime ministerial candidate, till she surprised everyone by anointing Manmohan Singh for the job. In 2009, Dr. Singh, as the incumbent Prime Minister, automatically became the candidate. Now that it is clear that he will preside over South Block till 2014, the fact that party seniors are saying that the prime ministerial candidate may have to be announced in advance points to an effort to name Mr. Gandhi as the party’s nominee.

Will Mr. Gandhi, meanwhile, take on a ministerial role in the lead-up to 2014? Thus far, he has strenuously opposed the idea himself, even though the Prime Minister has extended an open invitation to him. Senior party functionaries seem to believe that he will continue with the organisation — perhaps take on additional responsibilities.

However, in the chorus of voices over the last few weeks pushing for Mr. Gandhi to play a more critical role, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said he was one of those who “feel that it is necessary for Rahul Gandhi to come into the government and help the government in solving the problems that we face as a country.”

The others were more ambivalent on the role Mr. Gandhi might play: Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid said Mr. Gandhi must abandon the “cameo” roles he is playing for a more substantial position, while Union Corporate Affairs Minister M. Veerappa Moily described Mr. Gandhi as a “magnet” who was attracting the youth, and that he would take on additional responsibilities at the appropriate moment. Finally Mr. Digvijay Singh announced that by September, he expected Mr. Gandhi to play a role larger than his current one of being in charge of the Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India.

In the Byzantine Congress, it is unclear whether these statements mean Mr. Gandhi will soon be doing a bigger job, or that the various party leaders wish to be on the right side of a man who is their future prime ministerial candidate. It is also unclear whether that enlarged role will be in the party or government. But the urgent desire for change is unmistakable. Of course, Congress functionaries also point out that without any change in nomenclature, Mr. Gandhi has been, since May this year, interacting with party MLAs from different States – not just members of the Congress’ youth wings.

The official line articulated by party spokesperson Manish Tewari was that since 2004 – when Mr. Gandhi became an MP for the first time – Congressmen have been vigorously demanding he assume a larger role either in the party or government; and that now party leaders were, once again, actively repeating that demand. “The ultimate decision,” Mr. Tewari said, “will be taken by Mr. Gandhi and the Congress president.”

Interestingly, in response to a question, Mr. Digvijay Singh repeated that by November 2013, his 10-year-long sanyas from electoral politics would end: if the party agreed, he said, he would like to contest a Lok Sabha seat from his native Madhya Pradesh in 2014.

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