Raghuram Rajan, not Rahul Gandhi, should be UPA's next Manmohan Singh to take on Narendra Modi in 2019

In 1991, the newly-elected prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, facing one of the biggest ever economic crises India had ever seen, had made a surprise choice for Union finance minister. Rao had inducted economist-turned-central banker Manmohan Singh into his cabinet.

Cut to 2019, a political battle, essentially on a clutch of burning economic issues, is set to begin, and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has a much stronger case to identify another Manmohan Singh — and there is no better choice now than another world-renowned economist, former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan. By any yardstick, Rajan as a prime ministerial candidate in 2019 will be an even more rewarding bet for the UPA when compared to Manmohan Singh in 1991.

Why Rajan?

Rajan has equal, or better, stature than Manmohan as an economist and will be a formidable candidate to counter Narendra Modi in 2019 when the general elections will be fought on major political-economic issues — black money, agrarian crisis, unemployment — a scenario that makes no one better suited than Rajan to lead the country. His words carry immense weight even among world leaders and powerful multilateral institutions.

File image of Raghuram Rajan. Reuters.

File image of Raghuram Rajan. Reuters.

Manmohan handheld the Indian economy when it was on a roller coaster ride in the liberalisation era and also played an instrumental role in boosting the intellectual core of the Congress in the subsequent decades. Getting Rajan back to India and to the centre of political opposition can work even better both for the economy and the party, when the country is, yet again, facing a bout of economic crisis characterised by a weak rupee, agrarian crisis, unemployment and a crisis of confidence between the central bank and the ruling government on a range of contentious issues, to the point of invoking a clause that is fundamentally meant to silence the RBI and force it to consent to government demands.

Look closely. The career graphs of both Rajan and Manmohan have striking similarities. Both have served in the Indian government and the central bank and have international repute. Rajan is well aware of the nuances of the Indian political landscape and has stuck his neck out on a number of occasions during his stint at the RBI to speak on socio-political issues. He has commanded a degree of stardom among the informed middle class and even the laymen on the street.

If one measures both Rajan and Manmohan on a popularity meter at this point of their career, Rajan would stand a tad ahead of Manmohan, except the fact that he hasn't had his stint in the central ministry yet.

However, Rajan carries a star image that can be easily converted to the UPA's political benefit in 2019. Even two years after he left India — he is currently a Professor of Finance at University of Chicago's Booth School of Business — Rajan continues to hold his space in local media and political circles, a reputation that not many former central bank governors can claim. On debates on black money and unemployment, Rajan's words will carry more weight than Modi or any other political leader, at any point.

At this point, the UPA has lost its direction on an economic narrative. It's high time the coalition went back to its drawing board and revisited the 1991 Narasimha Rao days to opt for a surprise pick that can offer the Modi-led front a serious challenge.

A better political bet than Rahul

Also, since Rajan is not a representative of any political party at this point, his candidature will be more acceptable to the regional satraps — Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati — than Rahul Gandhi's. After the 2014 landslide mandate, Modi made his term all about the economy and economic reform issues.

Modi's roadmap began with the Jan Dhan Yojana, banking sector reforms, the Goods and Services Tax, the fight against the parallel economy and the promise of fast-paced manufacturing revolution. Modi progressed on many fronts, while failing to make meaningful impact on other few, but his intent has been unquestionable. It is with this intent and promise of reform-continuity that Modi will face the electorate in 2019.

Rahul often appears clueless to challenge Modi's economic campaign with undisputed facts and figures. He had his chances, but unfortunately, Rahul has failed to repeatedly prove that he can emerge as a leader who can be considered prime minister material.

Rajan, on the other hand, is a familiar face to the informed middle class voter and can easily relate to the rural populace, given the appeal he cultivated as RBI governor, spearheading the bad loans clean-up campaign and policy reforms. Rahul would do well to shelve his prime ministerial ambitions if he wishes to put the UPA's interest above his own. He should give way to a better candidate.

In 1991, Manmohan's selection for the finance minister's portfolio surprised many as he, 59 then, was seen as an apolitical technocrat and someone who had spent his whole life practicing economics and academic interests. But the decision was a political necessity for Narasimha Rao and the Congress to convince Manmohan to have an able hand in the government to wade through the economic mess. India was then going through a severe balance of payment crisis, and shoddy economics would have toppled even good politics severely if not approached with extreme caution.

In the years that followed, Manmohan evolved beyond the persona of a typical technocrat. Although he never perfected, he gradually learned to walk and talk like a politician. The Opposition called him a puppet dancing to the whims of the Gandhi family and ridiculed his silence on many critical occasions. But Manmohan donned the role of a pillar to give a credible prime ministerial face to the ever-divided UPA house and the unhappy Congress biological system, which developed a tendency to reject leadership elements beyond the Gandhis after the Nehru-Indira era.

In 2004 and in 2009, Manmohan continued to be the prime ministerial face of the Congress and was praised and criticised for his own share of contributions and political mistakes. But he remained in office for a decade, giving the party much-needed stability as the UPA's central figure.

Economic issues

Of course, times have changed since then, and the Indian economy has changed significantly from the days of the 1991 crisis. But the economy continues to be the central subject in politics.

The RBI and the government have locked horns in an unprecedented fight over multiple points in the economy, ranging from the use of foreign exchange reserves, to interest rate policy, to the bad loans clean up. A spectacular turf war is on in full swing.

Nearly five years have passed since the last UPA government was thrown out of office when the Modi wave swept the country. Now five years later, the Modi wave may have diminished but has not lost its power. As the 2019 battle approaches, the Congress and the divided house of the UPA is still struggling to find a strong, credible prime ministerial face that can counter Modi.

Even those in the Congress would silently agree that its party president is a weak bet as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2019 polls. Rahul shows no sign of a strong contender who can match Modi in terms of strategy, information and eloquence.

In private, even Rahul would admit that him as the prime ministerial candidate would be giving Modi a a walkover in the 2019 match. Going by the way he presents himself while handling serious socio-political issues, one can easily find the panic he tries to hide behind his grin with great difficulty. His arsenal is weak, often filled with superficial information and stage-managed performances, accompanied by his witty social media strategy.

But what Rahul lacks is a plan to handle the economy, agrarian crisis and issue of reservation in jobs. The Congress has yet to realise that at this point, the real battlefield is the Indian economy that lacks a strong, credible leader to spearhead its fight on economic grounds against Modi.

Rahul still doesn't seem to sense the pulse on the ground despite his innumerable need-based trips to far-flung villages. The only remedy for economic ills that Rahul seems to repeat at his political rallies is farm loan waiver, be it in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, or Kerala. That weapon isn't enough to wage a war on a leader who devised his battle plans on pertinent economic issues from Day 1 in office, even using the UPA's own schemes against it.

None of Rahul's moves appear spontaneous and convincing. If anything is working in Rahul's favour, it is the combination of the apparent anti-Modi sentiment in certain quarters.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, till the time he was within the UPA fold, was considered a potential prime ministerial candidate — politically experienced, familiar to the regional satraps' power play, someone with strong knowledge of ground realities and clever in manipulating developing political situations and handling crises. However, Kumar is a long gone bird for the UPA and will be an unwelcome guest even if he manages a last minute U-turn.

Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar is an old war horse who still has a fighting spirit, but he won't have too many takers in the coalition.

Such a depressing void in the prime ministerial seat puts the UPA at a disadvantage and in a state of gross confusion. This is probably the reason why the UPA, barely six months to the Lok Sabha polls, is still unable to pitch a prime ministerial face, with Rahul being the only logical, but very weak, choice.

At this point, the UPA doesn't have too many better options than Rajan to field against Modi in 2019. By doing so, Rahul would be elevating his political stature as the kingmaker of the UPA's comeback, rather than embracing a likely defeat under his own prime ministerial candidacy.

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Updated Date: Nov 13, 2018 13:48:24 IST

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