NEWS ANALYSIS Mr. Shinde’s experience as a grassroots politician may be greater than that of Mr. Mukherjee, but clearly he is not held in the same esteem across the political spectrum in Delhi as the latter was.
On Friday evening, when the Congress Core Group, an informal group of the party’s seniormost leaders, met for its weekly confabulations, the “vacancy” created by Pranab Mukherjee’s departure for Rashtrapati Bhavan, was not filled. For those in the party who had expected the newly appointed Leader of the Lok Sabha — and Home Minister — Sushil Kumar Shinde to join the august company of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Union Ministers A.K. Antony and P. Chidambaram, and Ms. Gandhi’s Political Secretary Ahmed Patel, there was a surprise: Mr. Shinde did meet Dr. Singh at his residence just before the Core Group convened, but was not asked to stay on for the meeting.
Later, senior party sources said that while this did not mean that Mr. Shinde would not be accommodated in the Core Group later, it was a decision that would be taken jointly by the Prime Minister and the Congress president. But given that this was the first Core Group meet after Mr. Shinde’s elevation, it caused a ripple in party circles.
While it is clear that Mr. Shinde was never expected to replace Mr. Mukherjee as the chief troubleshooter for the government and the Congress, the fact that the Home Minister is not being included in the Core Group as yet could, the sources said, be a signal to the many others who may have aspired for that job that this was just a symbolic elevation. In making Mr. Shinde Leader of the Lok Sabha, the party sent out a social message — that it had appointed a Dalit to the position which is usually held by the Prime Minister if he is a Lok Sabha member — but for the moment it does not wish to add to that message.
Mr. Shinde’s experience as a grassroots politician, having been elected to both the Maharashtra Assembly and the Lok Sabha several times as well as being a Chief Minister, may be greater than that of Mr. Mukherjee, but clearly he is not held in the same esteem across the political spectrum in Delhi as the latter was. This means Mr. Mukherjee’s tasks — apart from the ministerial portfolio — will now be shared by a host of persons. In the run-up to the vice presidential elections, it was the Prime Minister who worked the telephones, securing the support of UPA allies and supporting parties; in government, the lion’s share of the Empowered Groups of Ministers and Groups of Ministers has gone to Mr. Chidambaram. In Parliament, Mr. Shinde will have to look to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal and his deputies for assistance.
Inside the Lok Sabha, Ms. Gandhi’s belligerent intervention earlier this week when senior BJP leader L.K. Advani called UPA-II “illegitimate” would indicate that it is she who will play that leading role in the House. And in the coming weeks, the party may have to rope in a couple of senior Ministers to assist in floor management.
Meanwhile, the Congress’ declared number two, Lok Sabha member Rahul Gandhi, is still assessing his future, despite the universal demand in the party for him to play a larger role. On Saturday, after Hamid Ansari was sworn in as Vice-President for a second term, the Prime Minister, responding to questions from journalists, said, “I have always said I would welcome Rahul’s entry into government.”
In saying so, Dr. Singh was saying nothing new: indeed, a party functionary told The Hindu that the Prime Minister was one of the few senior leaders who would genuinely welcome the party’s yuvraj into his Cabinet as it would strengthen his position on economic reforms, adding that the two men have from the start of UPA-I shared a warm relationship.
In recent weeks, the party also officially said — after Mr. Gandhi publicly acknowledged the possibility of his elevation — that it was possible that he would hold positions in both the party and the government. A senior functionary pointed to Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mukul Wasnik, who combine Cabinet jobs with that of general secretaries.
But clearly no one will know whether Mr. Gandhi will simply be elevated in the party, or acquire an additional job in the government till he makes up his mind. And for that, it will be Come September. Asked about the possibility of a Cabinet reshuffle next month, the Prime Minister said, “You will come to know when it happens.”