Friday, November 28, 2014 | Latest E-book | Subscribe to Newsletter

Pranab elevation: Are Sonia, Rahul looking beyond 2014?

Is the BJP using reverse psychology to scuttle Pranab Mukherjee’s chances as president? And if he does become president anyway, what does this signal about Sonia and Rahul's intentions for 2014?

In Monday’s discussion on the Union budget, BJP leader Yashwant Sinha surprised many members on his own side by launching into high praise of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee even while tearing into the UPA government. Among other things, Sinha appears to have backed Mukherjee for elevation to the presidency, when party leader Sushma Swaraj explicitly ruled him out the other day.

The Economic Times put this in Sinha’s mouth: "After this session, the finance minister may be moving into a bigger house in the Capital... I have great regard for the finance minister. If there is someone who is providing leadership in government, it is him. We wish you a very bright future. We wish you would continue to serve this country in whatever capacity... But the country should be rid of this government at the earliest."

So what should one read between the lines? That the BJP is disunited on the issue of backing Mukherjee for president?

The meaning of sending Mukherjee to Rashtrapati Bhawan could be that the Congress strategy for the Gandhi scion will be to look beyond 2014 to 2017 or even 2019. AFP

Nah! The good words for Mukherjee did not come only from Sinha. A PTI report showed another BJP MP also rooting for Pranab. Hukum Dev Narain Yadav said he wanted Mukherjee to address a joint sitting of Parliament next year.

Clearly, the good wishes for Mukherjee didn’t come off Yashwant Sinha’s lone bat.

So what’s the game?

Having got roundly spurned the last time, when its rejection of both Pranab and Hamid Ansari got immediate endorsements for them from allies and enemies, perhaps the BJP is trying a bit of reverse psychology this time.

If what is acceptable to the BJP is inherently unacceptable to the rest, Sinha’s backing for Mukherjee is meant to reduce support for his candidature with the Left, regional parties, and also the Congress high command itself.

After all, what can worry the Congress president more than the fact that the BJP – one potential rival for power in a hung parliament in 2014 – is backing Mukherjee for president?

So is the BJP trying to scupper Mukherjee’s chances by praising him?

Significantly, Mukherjee himself shot back to Sinha: "Are you determined to remove me from the Finance Ministry?" This indicates that Mukherjee is not particularly keen to give up his current job for the sinecure of the presidency.

If, despite the BJP’s best efforts, Mukherjee still makes it to Rashtrapati Bhawan, it could be a pointer to many things.

First, the UPA would lose its main trouble-shooter, and this is acceptable to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul. In fact, it means they want him out of the finance ministry. One reason could be he is too cautious for their politics. Witness the sharp cut in food security subsidies and NREGA Mukherjee has wangled in the budget.

Second, with Mukherjee out of the government, the Congress president would have an opportunity to place her own man in the finance ministry ahead of 2014. The chances are that it won’t be P Chidambaram; it will be a Sonia political loyalist, someone who will use the government’s resources in the last budget before elections to bankroll welfare politics, not try and protect the country’s financial standing.

The NGO lobby close to Sonia Gandhi has now begun to dream beyond food security, and is proposing an old age security scheme that could cost a whopping Rs 2,00,000 crore. Aruna Roy, member of Sonia’s National Advisory Council, wearing her second hat as member of Pension Parishad, wants Rs 2,000 as minimum pension paid to the country’s eight crore senior citizens.

Mukherjee as finance ministry may not listen, but who knows what his Sonia-selected successor will do? If more spending will bring the Congress back to power, fine. If not, someone else will anyway have to clean up the mess.

For the Congress, fiscal irresponsibility will pay one way or the other. Swapan Dasgupta, writing in The Times of India on Sunday, asks whether “we are witnessing the scorched earth policy of a falling dispensation.”

A scorched earth policy makes sense only if you are not seeking to come back to power in 2014.

With Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhawan, and with the budget badly out of control of his successor, it could mean Sonia and Rahul are not necessarily looking at a win in 2014, but somewhere beyond.

Consider this strategy: over the next two years, welfare spending and an inability to push reforms, especially energy reforms, will worsen the economic situation. It is highly unlikely that Rahul Gandhi is the man to rescue India from this situation – especially if he is heading a rickety coalition that’s even weaker than Manmohan Singh’s.

In this scenario, Congress may well be happy to countenance a Third Front or another hotch-potch interim government – trusting it to muddle along for one or two years before public patience runs out and one can pull the plug safely. This three-to four-year gap between UPA-2 and UPA-3 may be just the breather the Congress needs to let people forget its scams and economic mismanagement.

The meaning of sending Mukherjee to Rashtrapati Bhawan could be that the Congress strategy for Rahul Gandhi will be to look beyond 2014 to 2017 or even 2019. Even in 2019, Rahul would be under 50. He has time on his side.