If there is one phrase that defines it all in the Congress party, this is it: the meek shall inherit. The rest shall be kicked out or kicked upstairs.
It was reported yesterday that Defence Minister AK Antony is the new No 2 to Manmohan Singh. The Indian Express says much the same thing, based on seating arrangements at a recent Union cabinet meeting. Apparently, Antony took the seat next to the PM, the one vacated by Pranab Mukherjee.
Looking simply at seniority, Sharad Pawar should have made it there, but he has two handicaps — he is not from the Congress, and, moreover, he is not a pushover when it comes to political clout.
Looked at simply from the point of view of talent and ability, Home Minister P Chidambaram should have been the next obvious candidate. He was not only close to Rajiv Gandhi, but also is not seen as inimical to 10 Janpath’s interests as Pawar. But he still didn’t make it.
It is worth recalling that last year Pranab Mukherjee and Chidambaram were engaged in a behind-the-scenes tug-o-war to position themselves for the prime ministership, on the assumption that Manmohan Singh may have become a liability for Sonia Gandhi.
However, Mukherjee, for all his services to the party, got picked for the presidentship, and that too only because Mamata Banerjee played her cards badly and forced Sonia’s hand by unexpectedly aligning with Singh to back APJ Abdul Kalam. Sonia panicked, and picked Mukherjee to checkmate Mamata.
The obvious conclusion: Mukherjee was not only considered unsuitable for the PM’s job, but Sonia had doubts even on his suitability for the presidency.
What did Mukherjee and Chidambaram lack that Manmohan Singh and Antony did not?
Actually, they didn’t lack anything. They had brains, they had clout, they had the ability to take the opposition head-on, and they could deal with the bureaucracy on even terms.
What they lacked was that elusive Congress requirement — meekness. This is what Manmohan Singh and Antony have in abundance.
In the Congress party, meekness is strength. Spinelessness is clout. It is the ability to be your own man — or woman, occasionally — that is a negative. Hence, Pranab and Chidambaram are out. And ditto for Sharad Pawar.
Hence, Sonia will always be uncomfortable with the likes of Jayalalithaa, Mamata and Mayawati, for they are independent minded, and take their own decisions.
To be sure, meekness is not a talent sought only by Sonia Gandhi. All parties love it in their second-in-commands, whether it is Narendra Modi or BS Yeddyurappa, or Jayalalithaa or Mamata or Mayawati. Why is it that none of these leaders have (or had) identifiable No 2s? Their most trusted lieutenants are doormats. The ones with spine are usually ousted.
Yeddyurappa wanted Sadananda Gowda to replace him last year primarily because the latter had no base in the party. But once he began to become his own man, he was replaced with Jagadish Shettar. Yeddyurappa had earlier opposed Shettar because as a Lingayat he was afraid he would be able to get his community and the party on his side in no time. Now, he seems to have temporarily decided otherwise.
This is what makes AK Antony prime No 2 material. Or make that No 3. No 2 is Manmohan Singh. We all know who is No 1.
To be sure, we don’t know if even Antony is next to the PM in the pecking order. It is all being deduced from smoke signals. According to a senior official that IANS spoke to, “Antony was seated next to the prime minister,” and that’s the reason for this conclusion.
In the absence of a formal announcement, we have to leave it at that. Earlier, it was being speculated that Pawar would be No 2, as his name was listed after Manmohan Singh on the official website of the Prime Minister’s Office. IANS says PMO sources downplayed this point.
However, this is where Manmohan Singh the politician may be bringing his own two bits of scheming into play. The confusion between Antony and Pawar may be deliberate. (Read more about it here)
As Firstpost noted before, even when Mukherjee was in the cabinet, his seniority was not always a settled issue. According to columnist Virendra Kapoor, even though Mukherjee had been the one to preside over the cabinet in the PM’s absence, a note issued last year by the Cabinet secretary said that in his absence, “either the minister of finance or the minister of home affairs may remain in Delhi during the period of the Prime Minister’s absence.”
To compound things, Kapoor quotes a 22 October note, which says that the “Cabinet Committee of Political Affairs will, in the Prime Minister’s absence, be presided over by the senior-most minister.” Why not name Pranab? Or even Chidambaram? Clearly, Manmohan Singh did not want to settle this issue and create a challenge to his own position.
The meek may inherit, but that does not preclude their ability to play the power game in their own way.
With inputs from IANS