On May 16, 2009, hours after it became clear that the Congress would be returning to power at the head of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the green latticed doors at 10, Janpath swung open. Party president Sonia Gandhi stepped out and walked briskly towards the black BMW that had just swept in. Accepting a bouquet of red carnations from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who emerged from the car, she beamed, and said, “Mubarak ho.” Minutes later, cutting short the expected babble of Gandhi acolytes who had already stepped up the demand to make Rahul Gandhi Prime Minister, she said firmly, “Rahul has made it clear, as I and the party have — Dr. Manmohan Singh is our prime ministerial candidate.” As the two stood together, a bank of microphones before them, they projected a perfect picture of partnership that had, despite the sceptics, worked.

Optimism and the reality

It was an acknowledgment that Dr. Singh had played a stellar role in the party's spectacular victory, drawing in support not just from middle class metropolitan living rooms but rural India as well: across Uttar Pradesh, I recall voters — cutting across caste and religious lines — saying they hoped the UPA, under Dr. Singh, would return to power and steer the country through the global economic meltdown.

But three years later, as the UPA readies itself to celebrate its eighth anniversary in power, the government and its Prime Minister have lost their sheen, swamped by a slew of financial scandals, the ham-handed response to the Anna Hazare campaign and rising prices. Congressmen, not Opposition leaders, are beginning to ask whether the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh partnership has run out of steam, and whether this unique power-sharing arrangement has led to ambivalence on policy issues, crippling effective decision-making. Finally, they are even asking whether the government needs a new face to lead it to the general elections scheduled just two years away, in 2014.

The Pranab factor

That face could have been Rahul Gandhi, the Congress yuvraj, but his own lack of enthusiasm for taking on the job at this stage, compounded by the party's disastrous showing in the recent Assembly elections in U.P. has ensured that he will not be taking over the reins, anytime soon. It could have been Ms Gandhi, but she made it clear in 2004, when the position was hers, that she was not going to take it. It could also have been the party's troubleshooter, its one man brains trust, Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. But most senior functionaries and ministers rule out that possibility even though a majority agree that of those available and no Gandhi willing, he would be the popular choice in the party for Prime Minister.

Of course, the Finance Minister's name is currently in circulation for another job — that of the next President, and he is certainly emerging as the Opposition's popular choice for a consensus First Citizen.

Indeed, four days short of the UPA anniversary, Mr. Mukherjee was the cynosure of all eyes at a dinner party hosted by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal in the capital. Seated between cabinet colleagues Kapil Sibal and Ambika Soni, Mr. Mukherjee took with good humour a volley of questions on the likelihood of his moving to Rashtrapati Bhavan, stressing along the way that he was nearing the end of his political innings: he even recalled an interview he had given in 2010 in which he had said he would not contest another election. The setting was, of course, informal, but given his instinctive tendency to be circumspect — and often, short with pesky journalists — his relaxed demeanour appeared to portend good news in the air.

But while a reliable and widely respected incumbent in Rashtrapati Bhavan would hold out the promise of stability in these increasingly troubled times of fractured mandates, it will not address the Congress's key concerns: how to inject dynamism into the government, provide a new look for the party and dream up a winning strategy for 2014, while burying all the bad news.

Big issues never tackled

But, as Congressmen across the board will tell you, there is no real sustained debate — or at any rate, any formal putting of heads together in party fora — on how to achieve all this. The big issues, freedom of expression versus community sentiments, market versus control, etc are never thrashed out to evolve a party view.

A senior party functionary pointed out that even the A.K. Antony Report, which analysed the Congress' performance in recent Assembly elections to five States, including U.P., will be seen only by the Core Group (whose members include Dr. Singh, Ms Gandhi, Mr. Mukherjee, Union Ministers P. Chidambaram and A.K. Antony, and Ms Gandhi's Political Secretary, Ahmed Patel) that meets once a week.

As for the Congress Working Committee (CWC), a more representative body, it seldom meets. It's little wonder then that the Congress is now a party where senior functionaries and ministers themselves scramble for information, where intrigue replaced any world view as ideology a long time ago, and ginger groups are a thing of the hoary past. There is no Madhavrao Scindia, no Rajesh Pilot, no Jitendra Prasad, to occasionally jog the party out of its complacency.

Textbook issue

Neither is there any system in the party that can respond to the challenges of the times. The recent NCERT textbook controversy, a cabinet minister stresses, should have evoked a considered response from the party: “Textbooks,” he said, “play a key role in a democracy. The response to the objections to the Ambedkar cartoon should not have been left to the HRD ministry.” If there is no serious internal debate, the Minister said, people in the party are unlikely to own decisions: the problem with allowing Foreign Direct Investment in retail, he said, is not the opposition of allies or other parties: “We ourselves haven't made up our minds, so we talk of evolving a consensus.”

Equally serious, points out another senior party leader, was the lack of clarity on the Batla House encounter, resulting in the sending out of conflicting signals to the Muslim community.

As the UPA celebrates its anniversary, it expects a rejig in the union council of ministers (if Mr. Mukherjee does move to Rashtrapati Bhavan, then there will be a new finance minister and a new Leader of the Lok Sabha) and Congress organisation. But most Congressmen say that till the role of Mr. Gandhi is decided, there can be very little real change: it's only when he takes charge of either the party or government — or both — that a generational change can take place.

Till then, Ms Gandhi, conservative by nature on these matters, will make incremental alterations, say most senior leaders, as she has always been mindful of carrying everyone. With two years to go to 2014, the focus then will be on the here and now — key Assembly elections in Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, spread over the next two years, and on resolving the mess in Andhra Pradesh. In the absence of being able to reinvent itself for the 21st century, a possible success at the hustings is the only game changer the Congress could look for.

smita.g@thehindu.co.in

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