It is said of Pranab Mukherjee that he was the best Prime Minister India never had – at least in the post-liberalisation period. As UPA’s perennial No 2, despite his widely-acclaimed political and trouble-shooting skills, he never earned the trust of Sonia Gandhi to be made PM. He opted for the presidency as his second-best choice of promotion.
Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, and the man to whose door India’s high and mighty are now beating a path to, is in the same boat. He is, and probably will remain, the best finance minister India never had.
Part of Manmohan Singh’s dream team of 1991’s reforms government, Ahluwalia has been an also-ran in the UPA power-stakes primarily because he is who he is: a liberalising economist caught in a no-hoper job in a moribund Planning Commission in an administration whose political instincts are welfarist and anti-reform.
Ahluwalia might currently be in demand because Manmohan Singh is holding the finance portfolio after Mukherjee’s exit, and Sonia Gandhi may be tolerant of this because she needs to give Manmohan his lollipop to arrest the economy’s slide, but make no mistake, Montek’s current power quotient is purely accidental and transient. He is not quite the Sardar of Delhi that The Economic Times labelled him as.
Montek, like Pranab, will probably never make it to the job he wants because he is not, and never will be, Sonia Gandhi’s choice for the job.
The world from Sonia’s vantage point looks like this: Manmohan is indispensable as long as Rahul is not ready for the job. But empowering Manmohan Singh to do what he likes with the economy, or give him his own choice as FM, whether it is Montek or even C Rangarajan, is not in Sonia’s interest, since it could change the power dynamics and image in favour of Manmohan Singh. The last thing Sonia needs is a Manmohan Singh with restored image at the cost of herself and the party.
Remember 2009? The media attributed the Congress improved results to Singh’s image after the nuclear deal? Sonia would not want a repeat of 2008-09 where Singh is the gainer in terms of image and not Rahul.
This is a critical reason for the re-creation of the National Advisory Council in UPA-2 as a major counter-weight to the Union cabinet and as a driver of social policy. It is the NAC that defines Sonia’s image, and not the government. If this were not the case, there would be no need for Sonia to revamp NAC at a time when its utility to the UPA’s makeover is over.
This is why whenever Manmohan Singh looks like significantly improving his own brand image, she has to deny him what he wants. And this is why Montek Singh Ahluwalia cannot get the formal recognition that Manmohan Singh desires to confer on him.
It also explains why Montek has always been the target of attacks both from NAC members, and sundry baiters from civil society and the media. Ever since Mukherjee was considered a possibility for Rashtrapati Bhavan, attacks on Montek surfaced with high regularity. First, it was about his definition of the poverty line. Next, it was about his excessive foreign jaunts. Then it was the media frenzy about his Rs 35 lakh investments in upgrading Planning Commission toilets. Montek became fair game once it seemed like he could once again be a frontrunner for the finance ministry, or destined for a higher-profile policy-making role in UPA-2.
Ahluwalia gets to be whatever he is only because Sonia can’t afford to keep Manmohan Singh miffed forever. Even doormats need to be occasionally rewarded for their loyalty.
But doormats cannot be allowed to decide their own image and priorities. This is why Montek Singh Ahluwalia is unlikely to get his dues with UPA-2.
He is trapped in his own loyalty to Manmohan Singh, who, in turn, is trapped in loyalty to Sonia Gandhi, who is trapped in the need to push her own son as PM candidate in 2014, which apparently calls for policies that are the very opposite of what Ahluwalia espouses.
What a tragedy.