Date: 4/5/2006


About the `sacrifices' by sonia gandhi ////// - By Pran Chopra ////// ////// For the past two years Mrs Sonia Gandhi has basked in the sunshine of power while someone else has shouldered the responsibility of the office of Prime Minister. It may be only of academic interest to ask today whether she "declined" that office two years ago because her "inner voice" told her to make that "sacrifice," or because some quieter voice explained to her the possible implications of Articles 102 and 191 of the Constitution. But either way, it is worth asking whether India would be better off if this diarchy were restored soon or if the country returned to the one-ruler regime of earlier years. ////// The question is directly related to Mrs Sonia Gandhi's second "sacrifice" but goes back to the first as well. Once the "office of profit" controversy broke out, Mrs Gandhi should have either given up her designation and perks as chairperson of NAC till the controversy ended, exercising her authority only informally, or she could have stepped down from Lok Sabha. Either way, she could have tided over the controversy, and when it ended she could have exercised whatever choices the new rules gave her. She could have retained both positions or given up either. But by resigning from both at the same time, she has possibly triggered an electoral process which may take the country back to where it was before her first "sacrifice." ////// Immediately after the election in May 2004, Mrs Gandhi got her first step towards the first sacrifice when the Congress Party, the largest in the new Lok Sabha, elected her as its leader. The second step came when she informed the President that she had been so elected, the third when he invited her to meet him to "discuss the formation of the next government." The fourth when she went. No "voice" had come in the way till then. But when it did, she found uses for it. The more she declined to change her stand, the more vociferously the crowd begged her to take the crown, until taking it began to look like a service to the nation. ////// This was the climate in which a couple of days later newspapers displayed pictures of her leading Dr Manmohan Singh by the hand to present him to the President as her protégé, or a stand-in Prime Minister, until her "voices" learnt the language of Indian politics. But a new question then arose: whether he too, like Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi before him, would be able to break free of his patrons one day and become the Prime Minister in his own right. The evidence was not spectacular to begin with but soon it became encouraging in its own way. Dr Manmohan Singh used none of the cut and thrust of the politics of succession for carving out a niche for himself. But with his unparalleled competence in so many and such different fields, ranging from the intricacies of economics, to nuclear riddles, to his imaginative initiatives in relations with neighbours, his sincerity and humility, he became such a respected and desired incumbent that he began to rise above every rival. /////// He also disarmed Mrs Sonia Gandhi by making her feel, and making her in fact as well, a respected partner in power. Each allowed the other to work out a mutually satisfactory plan of separate but complementary responsibilities: that is she to look after internal matters of the Congress and its relations with its partners in the coalition government, and he to manage all affairs of the government. Neither of them encouraged any hangers-on or busybodies to undermine the position of the other. The sight was most reassuring for India, and for other countries too which were working to build new relations with India, because it gave them the assurance that any understandings they may reach with either of the two leaders would have the clearance of the other as well. ////// But then ill-advised ambitions began to stir in breasts which cannot remain without them for long. Levels of confidence and communication between the two leaders declined and foul politics followed, for example by the governors of Bihar and Jharkhand. They found chinks where they expected to find them. A worse example followed more recently, over "offices of profit." Misunderstandings which could have been cleared by one telephone call between Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Gandhi were allowed to snowball into a prolonged crisis of confidence. Half baked statements by less than fully informed sources filled the air with the chatter of back channels and media leaks. One day there was an ordinance in the making and dissolution of the House to clear the way for it, and the next day there was no ordinance and no dissolution. Reviving memories of the Emergency, a loquacious minister claimed that there was little difference between Parliament passing a bill on the one hand, and on the other hand the government dissolving the House, issuing an ordinance instead, and getting it through Parliament later on! ///// While this confusion prevailed, the Prime Minister observed unmasterly inactivity. In the meantime, signs accumulated which, whether true or not, could not but show that trustful communication between Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi had all but broken down. She was to complain publicly later that the demand for dissolution and an ordinance was being projected as intended only to protect her. But the demand for ordinance and dissolution was coming only from within the Congress. Was it cleared with her, whether through NAC or bilateral channels? Did she take up her "complaint" with the PM through either of these channels before publicly unfurling the banner of her second "sacrifice"? Did the PM know in advance that she was intending to resign both from NAC and Lok Sabha? ////// Or, hoping to repeat the example which the other Mrs Gandhi had set her, did Sonia Gandhi decide entirely on her own to take the issue to the electoral arena as the battleground of her choice? If she did, the move was outrageously unilateral in the first place, and so unwise in the second place that not only is its end result in doubt but its first product is going to be very troublesome for Dr Manmohan Singh, and that too in the midst of the most critical phase of his most bold foray into diplomacy. ////// Regarding electoral prospects. Perhaps Sonia Gandhi has not noticed it, or has put it down to discouragement by her opponents within her party and the government, but the public clamour for her coronation has subsided rather more quickly this time than she would have liked it to. Secondly, if she has any larger scenario in mind, she can reach it only after wading through the state Assembly elections which lie immediately ahead, and her own and her party's prospects are so shallow in these elections that they can only muddy her design. She herself will sail through of course, but it is doubtful that she will also be able to drag her party to the other shore. And even if she does, the resulting conglomerate of parties will be no more — and probably much less — congenial to any personal ambitions on her part than the current coalition has proved to be. /////// Regarding the agenda of the present government, the fate of the nuclear negotiations between India and America hangs by the thread of the confidence level between the governments of the two countries. There are many in both countries who oppose the deal, but do not wish to say so. Now they will be able to use an argument which is politically neutral but can be lethal in its effect. All they have to say is that since the negotiations so far have been only with Dr Manmohan Singh, the United States should wait to see what happens to him in the coming rounds of elections before putting the burden of more expectations upon him. Their hope would be that the resulting delay would prove to be sufficient for killing the nuclear deal. ////// To return at the end to the question with which this comment began: should the Indian government become a diarchy again or return to the more familiar pattern of a single ruler? The diarchy has some advantages so long as it functions in the manner in which it was doing until only recently. At that time it was able to assure the country that in addition to the Constitution bound inter-dependence between the executive agency, the government, and Parliament, there was a functional inter-dependence between the executive and the party system. This additional inter-dependence is additionally useful when the executive agency is dependent upon a coalition of parties. But it can contribute to the smooth running of the political system only if there is mutual respect and confidence between the diarchs. If that vanishes the diarchy should also withdraw in favour of the more usual single ruler system. /////// 000000000