Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, accompanied by Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, will fly to Assam on Wednesday to file his nomination papers for another term in the Rajya Sabha, ensuring his membership of the Upper House till 2019, the same term the next elected government will get, making him eligible for a third term as PM — if the UPA government succeeds in getting another five years.
That, Congress sources stressed, should end the speculation that has been swirling around in the capital since Saturday of a disagreement between Dr. Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi over the exit of two Cabinet Ministers, and the likelihood of a new Prime Minister.
So much so that on two successive days Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi was compelled to publicly deny the existence of a rift between the two leaders, even as he firmly asserted that Dr. Singh would remain Prime Minister till 2014. “We refute such rumours and malicious campaign. No new decision has to be made in this matter,” Mr. Dwivedi said on Monday when asked whether Rahul Gandhi could replace Dr. Singh before the monsoon session of Parliament, later this year, stressing, “Whenever there was a need, the party has said in clear terms that Manmohan Singh will be Prime Minister till 2014. That is the position today also.”
Of course, it is true that as the next general elections draw near, the government’s inability to prevent a slew of financial scandals, rising prices and social protests over a rash of crimes against women from taking political centre stage has made the party’s Lok Sabha MPs queasy. There is a growing resentment against the leadership — that neither the government nor the party is doing enough to help them get re-elected. So, there were voices raised privately, for instance, against the party leadership for waiting until after the budget session of Parliament had ended and Siddaramaiah was safely elected CLP leader in Karnataka — the latter the first piece of good news in months for the party — to dump two Ministers whom party MPs saw as a liability.
But, while changing the Prime Minister could certainly change the optics, the fact is, as the Congress sources themselves point out, the TINA (there is no alternative) factor works in favour of Dr. Singh. The obvious — and most acceptable — alternative within the party is Mr. Gandhi, but the young vice-president has made it clear that he does not wish to replace Dr. Singh at this stage. If one sets that name aside, then, party sources say, there is no other name that will be acceptable to both the Congress and its allies — and that Ms. Gandhi simply cannot impose anyone else. Finally, these sources stress that Dr. Singh’s nine consecutive years in power — on May 22, the UPA government will celebrate its ninth anniversary — have been marked by stability, something not to be knocked.
In the current case, the sources say that while Ms. Gandhi did want the Ministers to be dropped from the outset, there was also a sense that this should not be done while Parliament was on and that nothing should be done to cast a shadow over Karnataka elections. The party was also concerned that it should not appear as if it was buckling under Opposition pressure. That, they say, is the quintessential Congress style of doing things.
Over the last nine years, the equation between Ms. Gandhi and Dr. Singh, and the division of labour have been discussed almost continuously — and not just in political circles. If that division of labour worked better in UPA I, it was also because it was a period in which the Congress appeared to have done no wrong, despite the exit of the Left parties over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal issue.
In 2004, when Ms. Gandhi made Dr. Singh Prime Minister, there was some heartburn in the party, but in 2009, when the Congress increased its score by over 50 seats, and some of the credit for the party’s fine showing went to him, there was a fair amount of resentment among those who were PM-aspirants.
But in a party, where power is centralised, the buck stops with Ms. Gandhi. Her choice remains Dr. Singh, and no one as yet is about to challenge that choice — not until 2014.