From smoke signals emanating over the last few weeks, one can see faint glimmers of the Congress strategy for the next elections — whether they happen in 2014 or even earlier. With this year being a drought year, the chances are that the party will opt to remain in power till 2014, since it may not want to risk elections when the rural mood is angry.
Yesterday’s Sonia Gandhi-LK Advani pow-wow over the latter’s “illegitimate” remarks — later withdrawn and expunged from the record — must be read along with other signals seen recently.
Among them: the insertion of P Chidambaram as finance minister in a symbolic move, but with no real freedom to announce big reforms or make big changes in politically-sensitive areas like oil pricing; the replacement of Chidambaram as home minister with a pliant Dalit, Sushil Kumar Shinde; the so-called willingness of Rahul to play a larger role in the party and/or government without any follow-up announcement in this regard.
This is what these signals add up to: The Congress party’s strategists have clearly come to the conclusion that Sonia will have to lead the charge politically, since Rahul has proved himself incapable of energising the troops.
No less a person than Salman Khurshid has regretted the fact that Rahul has been playing little more than “Cameo roles” in the party, much to the disappointment of the party.
The reason why this strategy is being rolled out in bits and pieces rather than formally needs some explanation: Sonia cannot ultimately seek the prime ministership in 2014, even though she has every right to. The idea thus seems to be to let her lead the party from the front, try and win the next election with the best possible seat-count, and then place Rahul in the gaddi – though this would depend on how many seats the Congress actually wins.
The reason why Manmohan Singh may also be more than happy with this scenario is that in case the Congress ends up with only 130-140 seats and fractious allies, he may get yet another term as PM. Rahul will be installed in the top job only if the Congress retains 200-plus seats in 2014.
That Sonia has bitten the bullet and decided to take a leadership role became clear on the eve of the presidential poll, when Mamata Banerjee’s failed caper to install APJ Abdul Kalam as president by temporarily teaming up with Mulayam Singh forced her to take a direct hand in wooing Mulayam. That episode must have convinced her that no one barring her can really change the course of politics before the next election.
Yesterday’s events — where Sonia intervened decisively not once, but twice, in the Lok Sabha — is clear evidence that she will now be seen to lead.
In the earlier part of the session, when Congress’ Telangana MPs were waving placards for a separate state, Sonia Gandhi sent them a stern warning that they should not embarrass the party. She shut them up.
Later on, she deliberately made it a point to intervene in the Assam debate with two objectives: to divert the focus from Assam to herself, and secondly, to make sure that she is seen to be leading the party in the house, even though it is Shinde who is the official leader. She has effectively replaced Pranab Mukherjee as the party’s trouble-shooter.
Advani got carried away and claimed that UPA-2 was “illegitimate”. He later tried to clarify that it was the 2008 trust vote that he wanted to term as illegitimate, but Sonia encouraged her troops to ignore his clarification and force him to formally withdraw his statement.
Advani was forced to do so and his remarks were expunged, and Sonia had made her point. The earlier shush-ing of Telangana MPs was also strategic: diverting attention from Sonia’s moment was not on. If the Telangana MPs had managed to bring the house to a standstill, Sonia could not have made her presence felt.
In the Dynasty, no one is allowed to upstage the leader. In last year’s Lokpal debate, Rahul was nowhere to be heard, but a few days before that, he suddenly surfaced to make a solo speech demanding constitutional status for the Lokpal. Clearly, Rahul was not willing to be seen as merely one of the speakers in an otherwise excellent debate on the Lokpal last August – where all speakers barring Rahul impressed.
Chidambaram’s placement in the finance ministry, as we noted earlier, is to make the books look better by February 2013, so that he can present some election-eve giveaways. But there is an important caveat — he cannot really take hard decisions like raising oil prices. He has to merely concentrate on revenue-generating ideas like spectrum or disinvestment.
The lesson for the BJP is simple: if Sonia is personally going to lead the charge, they cannot campaign on a platform where no leader is announced in advance. They have no alternative to Narendra Modi — assuming he wins the Gujarat elections — and the nation will have a choice of two polarising leadership figures, Sonia Gandhi and Narendra Modi, in 2014.
2014 promises to be an aar-paar ki ladai – a decisive Kurukshetra.