After the recent overhaul, the Congress is working hard to control its narrative, but when it comes to questions relating to its vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, it tends to flounder. Caught between stating the party position and fear that it might not sound loyal enough, its leaders now find themselves once again enmeshed in a pointless controversy over whether Mr. Gandhi will – or will not – be declared the party’s prime ministerial candidate ahead of the next general election.
On July 12, party general secretary Digvijaya Singh, responding to a question on whether Mr. Gandhi would be declared the prime ministerial candidate for 2014, said, “We don’t have a presidential form of government. Congress does not declare PM or CM candidates before elections... Even in the Karnataka Assembly elections, we had not declared any CM candidate.” Asked whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could remain a candidate for the top job, if the UPA returns to power, he was equivocal.
Strangely, this was interpreted by the media to mean that Dr. Singh was opposed to Mr. Gandhi becoming PM. This interpretation was then put to party general secretary Janardan Dwivedi: he was asked whether it was true the party didn’t want to make Mr. Gandhi its PM candidate. His response: “Individuals may have their own opinion, but on such issues the final decision is taken by the party.”
The Congress, he continued, had declared in Jaipur at the time Mr. Gandhi was appointed vice-president that “the question of leadership and who would lead the campaign would be decided later”. No time frame was announced, he stressed.
Muddying the waters further, a senior party functionary said, “Sonia Gandhi is our top leader, but she has said she will never become PM. Rahulji is no. two: so who can become PM?”
On Monday, when the same question was posed to party communications boss Ajay Maken, he said, “It is not yet decided. We will let you know when it is decided.”
Later in the day, Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari – asked the same question – responded: “Dr. Manmohan Singh is the Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi is the chairperson of the UPA, we have a young leader in Rahul Gandhi, who the youth identifies and empathises with and this is the trinity which will lead the Congress in 2014.”
Barring the off-the-record remark, all others – if one reads them closely – and all offered in response to questions from a persistent press, are saying roughly the same thing: Dr. Singh is PM for now; Mr. Gandhi is the leader of the future. No time frame.
The fact is, at the most authoritative level, the Congress has already declared that Dr. Singh will be Prime Minister for the duration of the current Lok Sabha. The unstated part of this assertion, of course, is that to announce any other name while Dr. Singh is in office would undermine his authority, and make a weak UPA government look even weaker.
On February 16, Mr. Gandhi firmly endorsed Dr. Singh’s handling of the economy, stressing he would complete his term as Prime Minister. This unstinted praise came after Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna made a strong pitch for Mr. Gandhi to be declared the party’s prime ministerial candidate while speaking at a two-day meeting of Congress State chiefs and CLP leaders.
An irate Mr. Gandhi, party sources later said, ticked off Mr. Bahuguna. “I don’t want to hear such a thing again,” he said, reminding the Chief Minister that Dr. Singh was already at the helm, and that the problems the party was currently facing had nothing to do with the PM, and everything to do with the poor state of the organisation.
On that occasion, Mr. Dwivedi, as media head, dismissing the issue raised by Mr. Bahuguna, stressed, “This is an unnecessary controversy. We have made it clear again and again that Mr. Gandhi is the leader of the party for the future. Right now there is no question as Dr. Singh is the Prime Minister and ... he will be in the post till 2014.... Let the elections come, let us see what happens.”
Three months later, on May 22, at the UPA’s ninth anniversary celebrations, its chairperson Ms. Gandhi forcefully defended Dr. Singh: “The Prime Minister is carrying out his responsibilities with great dignity in the face of unrelenting hostility and abuse from the Opposition,” she said in her speech. “We respect him, and we all stand by him.”
Later, responding to questions from journalists, she asserted that there were no differences between her and the Prime Minister, that the party had a system of collective leadership, and that it would be a joint election campaign for 2014. This was the line Mr. Gandhi repeated later to the media that evening.
Of course, as the unnamed functionary quoted above put it, since the number one – Ms Gandhi – has made it clear that she will not ever become PM, the number two –Mr. Gandhi – will clearly always be a candidate, unless publicly declared otherwise.
Meanwhile, the Congress might do well to synchronise its messages, given there is a trigger happy press waiting to trip it up.