Who will be the next Prime Minister in India?

Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, while campaigning in UP touched upon only on one theme. That is to remind the voters that Rahul Gandhi is their future! This he did while knowing well (or completely ignorant of the ground realities in the state) that the Congress in UP would finish fourth. That should have been an embarrassing reminder. Yet, no one seems to have been embarrassing. On the contrary, everyone, from the PM down to every other Congress leader had sycophantically sang the theme song of Rahul taking over the mantle from the PM during the next General Elections due in 2009.

That has sent many messages, often pro-active messages to the Opposition ranks. Notably, the current political mood in the country is about who would become the next Prime Minister. Is Rahul Gandhi in a position to dream of his future as the Prime Minister?

For one, the Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray has said just now that he is ready to support Sharad Pawar, the Nationalist Congress Party president for the post of Prime Minister. He also makes it clear that he is at the same time opposed to Sonia Gandhi occupying the post.

So, the next Prime Minister: Sonia Gandhi or more particularly can she nominate her son, Rahul to the highest job?
Dr. Singh, India’s  current head of the government, yes, that is how one can describe his official position, though for protocol sake we can call him the Prime minister, has been proving to be an embarrassment to many inside and outside the Congress party. The three years he has been in power have produced a mixed credit card about his actual worth for the party and the government. First, people imagined rightly that he is an economic wizard. Yes, he made his reputation as an economist, more so an expert in monetary management ,first as the Reserve Bank Governor, later as the Finance Minister under  P.V.Narasimha Rao when the late PM initiated the economic reforms.In fact, there are so many bogus claims to this reform process. Reforms were already started under the later years of Indira Gandhi (when, among other things, the color TVs were permitted to be imported under Rajiv Gandhi’s urgings), later under Rajiv Gandhi, but it was when Narasimha Rao took over the crisis on the foreign exchange front that saw the Chandra Shekhar government pledge India’s gold reserves and later it was a process that no one, including Narasimha Rao could have prevented. So much for the economic reform process and the various claims individuals are credited with.

Anyway, now Singh is nowhere in the picture. He doesn’t even speak about economic reforms or economic growth. That initiative is seized by his more zealous deputy, the maverick turned finance minister who claims to be an economic authority. But the latest flush in inflation rates had disproved he hardly knows economics. Economic growth is not a simple or simplistic one-point agenda. It is a multiple of many factors, including price stability and more importantly it must make sense on the employment generation front. Economics is a serious business; it requires in modern days a great vision, a vast grasp of diverse issues etc.

Now, as for Singh, he is seen as a lame duck Prime Minister. So, in his latest avatar he was seen, as he was pleading with the Up voters to look upon Rahul Gandhi, as the future hope for the UP and by implication to the rest of India. What was seen as the best kept secret by the Congress high command was now thrown open to a public debate.

So, the noted editor and commentator, M.J. Akbar, of The Asian Age has written a highly sarcastically titled weekly essay,” If Rahul is future, who is the past?”(Asian Age 22, April).The points raised by the distinguished editor are: Singh is past 70 and his time is up. Rahul, just 40, his time has come. If so, then what about the “In betweens”? The “In betweens” are the most critical mass of the party as it is constituted today. They are all in their Sixties, the ones who followed Indira Gandhi’s two sons, Sanjay Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi. Men like Kamal Nath, Mani Shankar Aiyer,P.Chidambaram and others. But they are all not mass leaders; they have no popular base in their respective states. Nor the still ageing old guard in the Cabinet, men like Shivraj Patil or Susil Shinde or Antony are also men of straw, as they have no independent political face, given the way Sonia Gandhi has eliminated and kept out all the leaders who have some mass base out of her strategy of keeping competition to herself and her son, the family out of reach! They are all able men and women, they are ambitious and they would be left out if and when Rahul is elevated to the PM’s job after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

In fact, there are now so many new obstacles. First, the party is losing elections in all the latest series of elections in Pubjab, Uttarkhand, and now notably in UP where it is expected to finish fourth. Second, then there is the forthcoming Presidential elections. This, given the numbers, the Congress can’t have it as its own preserve. So, the Congress sponsored candidate is very unlikely to find backers. The allies in the UPA and with the Left in particular would have the final say. Thus, even assuming the Congress gets its candidates, either Pranab Mukerjee or Susil Shinde, have not a certain chance, though these two would be from the old guard, not from the “In betweens”. Third, there is no chance that even Rahul Gandhi can become the PM in 2009,because there is every chance the Congress might emerge not as a single largest party or with any majority and there is every chance the present allies would change their  loyalties. Lalu Prasad Yadav had already expressed in public his wish to assume the PM’s job one day. There is the formidable, long-waiting, Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Party and there is a bright chance he might be the next PM, given his enormous PR skills and networking capabilities. Finally, there is also the chance of Rahul, even if he is put on the gaddi, he might not get the support of men like Pawar.It is hard to imagine that men like Pawar being a member of the Rahul Cabinet.

So, there are so many imponderables.

In fact, what Mr.Akbar has raised as critical issues are more than the simple numbers, the faces also matter. There were leaders in the past, from Jawaharlala Nehru to Indira Gasndhi to Lal Bahadur Shastri.Some were great visionaries, Nehru was more than an Indian leader, he was an international personality, his interests were far beyond the Indian borders, he was recognized in his own life time as a leader and spokesman of the Asian-African and Middle Eastern Non-Aligned Movement and much more.

Indira Gandhi, though not an intellectual on the scale of Nehru, yet she possessed enormous will-power and strength of character to take tough decisions. Her speeches were carefully prepared and delivered and thus she cultivated an international audience. Certainly, he was looked upon as a leader of the sub-continent of India. Her words and decisions affected Indo-Pakistan relations, she played such a role in the creation of Bangladesh and Sri Lankan politics was very much under her radar.

But the other old guard, men like  Kamaraj,Lal Bhadur,Morarji Desais,Govind Ballbh Pant and Sardar Patel were men of strong characters, they didn’t talk much, they didn’t know much also about politics and affairs beyond India’s borders but they lent   certain character to Indian politics and India counted in the region under their leaderships. Afterwards, those who followed, men like Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and others, from the opposite stream came the Socialists and Communists, JP, Lohia and EMS and Jyoti Basu were also men with broader vision and a wider grasp of things.

But today what we find?

We find India becoming a cocoon of a small country. It started very much under leaders like Rao who never spoke out his mind. Indian Prime Minister has a vast responsibility reaching beyond its borders. We have a great political legacy. The outside world, including the US looks upon India as a land of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru; we are supposed to take some principled stands on a variety of issues that concern the world affairs. But alas! Under Singh we have completely become cut off from the wider currents.

That is why when Singh told the UP to look upon Rahul; there was anger and disgust among the wider sections of people. Here is a person who plays the sycophant so pathetically.

There are so many issues that are likely to impact India, more so from our neighbors. Pakistan President is out to do a deal with Benazir Bhutto, all to stay as a military dictator for an unlimited period. The Bangladesh military is preventing Ms. Hasina, the ex-premier to enter the country and planning a deal to exile Ms.Zia, another ex-premier. In UK there is a hue and cry about human rights violations by preventing a citizen, more so an ex-premier, to return to her own country. But in India there is a dead silence!

India should not intervene in the internal affairs of a country, more so in a neighboring, friendly one. Yes, this much is admitted. But there must be voices from the leaders of India about such blatant deals to perpetuate military dictatorships and suppress the citizens. The Indian civil society too seems to be reluctant to voice its concerns for democracy, citizen rights and human rights.

One has to imagine what would have been the position under leader like Nehru; even under Indira Gandhi.Mrs.Gandhi voiced her opposition when the late Mr. Bhutto was hanged by Pakistan’s dictator. But now, India is a much more mature country, our intentions are not suspect and we have more claims to speak for democratic values and yet we find here a PM who does just the opposite and has suddenly become a man of few words or no words! Yes, the old guard leaders who didn’t much and yet they showed that to talk less is to do more. In the case of the current PM, we neither speak, diplomatically or otherwise, we are afraid to express any opinion even in a disinterested manner.

So, the point is that even when the next change of guard takes place and assuming that Rahul Gandhi is perched on the PM Gaddi, it won’t be an easy task for the young leader. At least his father, Rajiv Gandhi had enormous goodwill and a set of friends to help him with initially. But given Rahul’s present gaffes and the way the public are laughing it off, it looks he might not find the journey ahead so easily predictable.

The old guard put a high premium on loyalty. The same can’t be said of the current “In betweens”. They are ambitious, they are extremely wealthy, and they have lots of room for playing the game of changing subtly and otherwise their loyalties. After all, they and the still younger lot, the newly elected young MPs, have not had any roots in the Congress traditions. So, there could be any or many surprises. Why, even Lalu Prasad Yadav and Sharad Pawar might be surprised to find some dark horse emerge as the next Prime Minister of India.
NB: One last thought: Indians feel proud about our great Constitution. Yes, it is really a great document and an institution. I was reading just now the latest biography of Nani A.Palkhivala by M.V.Kamath.I was so impressed by the role played  the late jurist in defending the Constitution from it s various attacks through various amendments, the judges who stood by the spirit  of the Constitution and the heavy price they paid for doing so. Then I also read in the newspapers about the challenges to judiciary in Pakistan where the Chief Justice was suspended. It was good to see that the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) visiting Pakistan and saying that the Pak judiciary is under severe threat. I also see the developments in Bangladesh. The thought ran inside me: is there any guarantee that we in India won’t face any threats to our Constitution?

What if in future, in a crisis (like the one that arose in 1975), the Constitution cant be suspended by any ambitious person, if not a military dictator, even a much more adventurous person exceeds the job of Mrs.Indira Gandhi? I soon dismissed such a crazy thought. I hope I am right. But when you see the developments worldwide, we can’t say at any time that democracies are always safe. We have to be vigilant all the time to make our democracy safe and public opinion strong enough to deter any evil minds. Hitler’s name was mentioned by Nani Palhivala in the course of his arguments in the Golaknath and Keshavananda cases. There was consternation in the full Bench of 13 judges! But then we saw even then very soon there was another Bench of 13 judges under A.N.Roy to reverse the earlier judgments. Luckily, it was dissolved when the majority of the judged didn’t go the way Mrs. Gandhi government wanted. The point is that the boundary line between democracy and dictatorship is very thin often.

So, we have to keep talking about, debating about politics and developments inside and outside India all the time. Amen.

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