For the average Congressman, faced with general elections in a year, the question who will be the face of the party is critical. This is especially so as, at the end of a decade in power at the head of a coalition, the Congress has been laid low by a series of financial scandals, spiralling prices and social protests: it needs to change that narrative.
It is in this context that one needs to decode what general secretary Digvijaya Singh said recently in an interview with The Economic Times : the Congress’ recently anointed vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Mr. Singh stressed, had not ruled himself out of the prime ministerial sweepstakes, merely that the “welfare of the people” is his priority; and two, the experiment with twin centres of power — Sonia Gandhi as Congress president and Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister — had failed.
Conversations with a cross-section of party functionaries and leaders suggest that Mr. Singh was reflecting what many in the Congress — especially the rank and file — feel. There is a clear sense in the party — whatever critics of dynastic rule outside it may say — that it is the Gandhi-Nehru clan which keeps the party not just united but also enthused. All this talk of Mr. Gandhi being unwilling to assume responsibility in case the Congress-led UPA is actually voted back to power for a third time, and that he — like his mother — may “look for his Manmohan” just doesn’t strike a chord with the party faithful, they say.
Mr. Singh, therefore, wanted to place that squarely in the public domain: that Mr. Gandhi has never said he doesn’t want to be PM, only that he wants to focus on strengthening the organisation for the moment. “Rahulji can hardly say he wants to be PM,” a party functionary pointed out, “while another Congressman is doing that job: he would only have ended up undermining Dr. Manmohan Singh, who is already under fire.”
Congressmen also point out that the question who will be the next PM — if the UPA returns to power — will hinge on how many seats it gets: there is a general belief that unless the party gets a majority, or is close to one (something that clearly looks impossible right now), Mr. Gandhi will not want to take on the PM’s job. In short, with so many ifs at this stage, they point out it would be unwise of Mr. Gandhi to announce that he is in the running for a position that would be his for the asking if the UPA emerges at the top of the heap.
But for the rank and file, the message needs to go out that it is Mr. Gandhi who, under the guidance of his mother, will lead the election campaign in 2014. The leadership thought it had sent that signal out when, last year, he was named the person who would oversee the election campaign. That was underscored in January this year at the chintan shivir when he was appointed vice-president. But, unfortunately for the Congress leadership, that message got muddied after Mr. Gandhi was quoted as saying that his priority was the party. It got parsed as signifying he did not want the job.
Mr. Singh’s remark about the twin centres of power experiment not working has, however, led to varying interpretations. “It is not necessarily an attack on Dr. Singh,” one party leader said cautiously, “but it does mean that a keen political understanding is key to successful governance.” A harsher view, of course, is that if voters believe that Dr. Singh is the Congress’ prime ministerial candidate, the party won’t have a chance at the hustings: the Congress general secretary is saying that shortcomings in governance, rather than in the organisation, are the source of the problem. In short, Mr. Singh is saying to the electorate: don’t worry about governance, we will find someone else to do that job, if you return us to power. And he is telling the party: get up and fight, the Nehru-Gandhis are still in charge.