Chidambaram, Nilekani or Digvijaya? Who will be Rahul Gandhi’s Manmohan?

With Rahul Gandhi now declaring that he does not intend to marry, the elections of 2014 will be the Battle of the Bachelors - one 42 and the other 62 - both fighting to win India’s heart.

Sagarika Ghose March 07, 2013 12:04:21 IST
Chidambaram, Nilekani or Digvijaya? Who will be Rahul Gandhi’s Manmohan?

With Rahul Gandhi now declaring that he does not intend to marry, the elections of 2014 will be the Battle of the Bachelors - one 42 and the other 62 - both fighting to win India’s heart.

Narendra Modi was reportedly once married but is now famously single and dedicated to Bharat Mata, and Rahul Gandhi has just declared that he does not intend to ever marry as he prefers status quo to having children.

Rahul has also said that he does not want to become prime minister because he feels it is important to be “detached” from power. While “Modi for PM” is the rallying cry of sections of the BJP, Congress is now left with the question, “who for PM?”.

Chidambaram Nilekani or Digvijaya Who will be Rahul Gandhis Manmohan

Rahul Gandhi with Manmohan Singh. AFP.

Outsourcing the political executive has a long history in India. Mahatma Gandhi never contested elections and left the governance of newly independent India to Jawaharlal Nehru. Jayaprakash Narayan also never contested elections, leaving Morarji Desai to head the post Emergency Janata government. Bal Thackeray never contested elections either, preferring to be the kingmaker confined to Matoshree, appointing and dismissing Maharahstra ministers from the pinnacle of unofficial authority.

When Sonia Gandhi refused to become prime minister in 2004 and instead appointed Manmohan Singh who Modi recently called “nightwatchman”, she pragmatically removed herself from being attacked as a “foreigner” PM but at the same time made it clear that the Prime Minister was in office by her pleasure and wish.

The non-political technocrat politician together with the grassroots-oriented supreme bahu of the Gandhi parivar, became a winning combination for the UPA in 2009: dynasty was in power but not in office, a Gandhi controlled the Congress party even though a Gandhi had not occupied the Prime Minister’s office for the last decade.

An outsourced Prime Minister may thus be Rahul’s smart way or The Family’s clever way of blunting the attacks on dynasty, birth-based privilege and divine right to rule that marks the Congress.

After all, when corporates across India make the transition from family control to professional CEOs with their eye on performance and profitability, then political parties, which operate in as competitive an environment as businesses, must also look to transiting from family firms to a professional management that will win them the political bottomline.

Sometimes an outsourced PM works well. Manmohan Singh, before the theek hai period and before he turned strangely inactive, voiceless and pummelled by scam-after-scam, was a huge asset for the UPA. Blue Turban’s own personal integrity and dignified manner, the middle class’s wholehearted approval of Manmohan-economics, the fact that the UPA went to polls on Singh’s precious Indo-US nuclear deal and won handsomely in urban areas shows that the 2009 victory was as much a victory for the Sardarji as it was for the UPA, however hard the Congress tried to convince itself that it won because of NREGA.

However, for the UPA, the outsourced prime minister worked well while the government performed. The minute the UPA slipped into the coma of non-performance, the outsourced Prime Minster became a liability, unable to galvanise the government and unable to enthuse the party. Yet in UPA 1, the professional CEO and family proprietor combination worked to the government’s advantage.

So who will be Rahul Gandhi’s Manmohan Singh? Assuming the UPA is once again in a position to stake a claim to the top job, (and this is a big assumption) who will be the technocrat-manager head of government to a Rahul-led Congress ? Lutyensland is abuzz at the moment with two names: P Chidambaram and Nandan Nilekani.

Palaniappan Chidambaram is the star performer of the UPA. Whether in Home or in Finance, Chidambaram is a highly efficient and clear minded minister, setting a spanking pace for whichever ministry he is entrusted with, accompanied with an impressive knowledge of governance and adminstration. Chidambaram is not a mass leader thus not a threat, broadly loyal to 10 Jan Path except for his one fling with the Tamil Manila Congress in the 90s, can’t speak Hindi and is not known to be team player.

Yet he’s popular with the middle class and corporates and Chidambaram as Prime Minister would build perception of a “can-do” economic growth oriented government. Chidambaram heads the list of Rahul’s Manmohan Singh probable list.

Next on Rahul’s list of outsourced Prime Ministers would be Nandan Nilekani, chairman UIDAI. A complete outsider in politics, beloved of the middle class, untouched by scandals and known for his integrity, even somewhat of an youth icon and poster boy of young new India, Nilekani is once again not a mass politician and unlikely to be seen as a threat by any of the party heavyweights. But Nilekani as Prime Minister would mean draining the PMO of all political content and turning the office into a determinedly and almost completely non political executive with political power located elsewhere.

If the Rajya Sabha becomes the main supplier of ministers and prime ministers then there is a danger that the Lok Sabha could become marginalized in a parliamentary democracy and those who take decisions are not accountable to the people. Also, just as Sonia Gandhi has steadfastly backed Manmohan Singh for the last ten years, a completely apolitical PM like Nilekani would require constant support of the political leader.

Third on the list of Rahul’s Manmohan probables would be Jairam Ramesh, minister for Rural Development. Highly cerebral and educated, very much in tune with Rahul’s own Left-of Centre, pro poor agenda, Jairam ruffled feathers for being “anti growth” during his tenure as Environment minister.

He’s known to be a maverick, and however visionary some of his initiatives such as mass sanitation, and however interestingly thought provoking his statements on toilets and temples (a statement robustly defended by none other than Sulabh International founder Bindeshwar Pathak, notwithstanding the pious indignation of the Hindu Right), Jairam is not really a consensus builder. Jairam as Prime Minister might be high on intelligence and action, but perhaps low in wining hearts and minds among colleagues and party.

Rahul’s PM wish-list is incomplete without mentioning Rahul’s own political guru and mentor, his declared tutor in the mass politics, Digvijaya Singh. While the first three may be non- political prime ministers, Digvijaya’s problem may be that he is too much of a politician, too much a product of a long tenure in the hurly burly of politics, and thus not as non-threatening a figure that an outsourced prime minister needs to be.

Digvijaya Singh, two time chief minister of MP, is a veteran Hindi heartland politician, a “hard secularist” , who believes that taking on the Hindutva opposition frontally and on every occasion, is the best way to fight the Congress battle. Digvijaya Singh as Prime Minister may be too much of a red rag to the saffron bull, which the soft Hindu inclined urban middle class may not quite appreciate.

And who could be the last and fifth member of the list of outsourced Prime Ministers who Rahul could possibly appoint if he is in a position to do so in 2014? Could this be Priyanka Gandhi herself?

When all others fail, bring in the sister to mind the store while the brother takes care of the business outside? Priyanka as prime minister might bring the charisma and communication that her brother has so far failed to show, recapture the Gandhi mystique to which Congress is enslaved but without any proven administrative experience whatsoever, her claims resting purely on family name, Priyanka Gandhi may open a whole new flank for an opposition attack on parivar raj. Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit could also be among Rahul’s list of Manmohan equivalents. But at 75 and a Congress heavyweight, Dikshit might be far too threatening for other Congressmen to stomach.

Above personalities, lies the larger principle. Is an unelected technocrat-manager as Prime Minister, someone outsourced by the political leader a good thing, a positive trend? Across India, second generation dynasts are facing diminishing political returns. Sukhbir Singh Badal in Punjab is finding it difficult to command the same loyalty as Badal senior. Akhilesh Yadav is in deep trouble in UP.

The DMK family has splintered in Tamil Nadu. Dynasty does not save the Abdullahs from regularly losing elections.The Lalu-Rabri duo is politically extinct and the Devi Lal Chautala family is in decline too.When dynasty stops delivering political returns, should the company not be turned over to an efficient CEO? When Family is needed to keep the brand alive yet is also a stumbling block in the path to growth, then should Family not rule by proxy by appointing those high performers who can deliver to a performance-oriented electorate?

The biggest pitfall of a supreme leader who combines prime ministerial power and political power is quasi-dictatorship as we saw with Indira Gandhi. But the biggest advantage of Prime Minister who is also the supreme political leader is that party and government gain the benefit of charismatic leadership, as we saw with Vajpayee.

An outsourced prime Minister does not embody political power. But he could provide efficiency and performance. An outsourced Prime Minister may never be able to provide inspirational leadership or galvanise a crowd but he could deliver on administration A political prime minster could also be a high performing prime minister, but at a time when policies and decisions run the risk of being perceived as anti-people, when the needs of the economy could lead to political upheaval, then a political leader may just find it prudent to let someone else take the flak.

There are many who argue that the prime minister of a republic must be a man or woman of the masses, an elected representative. But when dynasty faces an image crisis—as it undoubtedly does-- an outsourced Prime Minister may be the best way a family run business can get access to professional outside management.

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