When scholars write the history of the early 21st century India, they might consider Sushma Swaraj’s hysterical reaction to Sonia Gandhi’s proposed prime-ministership in 2004 as one of its most epochal events. All set to assume the reins of power after the split verdict of 2004, Sonia Gandhi suddenly heard her “inner voice”, and handed over the highest office to Manmohan Singh. Dr Singh, a non-political politician and thereby almost by default a middle-class hero, has handled the day-to-day affairs of the government while Mrs Gandhi became the de facto arbiter of its policies. It was the perfect arrangement: Dr Singh grappled with governance while Mrs Gandhi acquired an incandescent halo aided by her ability to influence policy while bearing little personal responsibility for its failures. Feel-good governance—where policies can be advocated unencumbered by fiscal constraints or future sustainability—does accrue short-term political capital.
Aided by a dejected BJP and Left vaulting far beyond its limited capabilities, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) swept to a resounding victory in the 2009 general elections. The Congress party may not have won a majority on its own but it was clearly a party on the ascendant, with an incoherent opposition restricted largely to regional strongholds. It was common political wisdom that the era of coalition politics—at least at the centre—was coming to an end with the Congress eyeing a clear majority in the next general elections scheduled for 2014. Dr Singh, finally seen emerging as an independent power centre of his own, was handed over the keys to the kingdom with Rahul Gandhi being groomed for the top job.
However, Mr Gandhi recently declared that “being prime minister is not the only job in the world.” It had been widely assumed that sometime in the next two to three years, Dr Singh would hand the reigns of power to Mr Gandhi who would lead the party in the 2014 elections. A young prince already heralded as the “Next Great Hope”, unaffected by anti-incumbency was expected to vanquish a tired and bitterly divided opposition.
So what gives? It appears that Mr. Gandhi has grown increasingly fond of the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh model with its consummate de-linking of power and responsibility. Mr. Gandhi has recently assumed his mother’s role: intervening in policy debates while pointedly refusing to assume any responsibility for governance. Even Dr. Singh’s offer of inducting him in the cabinet was turned down by the Gandhi scion. Though no definitive conclusions are possible so early in the game, it is possible that in 2014 the Congress party may appoint another Dr Singh to the job while the Gandhis continue to wield the remote control.
Therein perhaps lies the explanation for Mr. Gandhi’s statist policy turn. Whether in the crude and contrived differences drawn between “Real India” and the rest of India, the quiet burial of economic reforms or in implementing gargantuan anti-poverty schemes, the Gandhis are pursuing the same old policies drawn from the Nehruvian era. With economic growth seemingly on autopilot—at least in the short-term—and little credible political opposition, it does appear that this is a win-win for the Gandhis. Advocate populist policies—who can argue against helping the poor?— and when the day of reckoning arrives, as it did in 1991, the blame can quietly be shifted to those who were notionally holding office. The Gandhis would escape with their halo intact.
There is, however, a twist in the tale. Fresh from the electoral victory of 2009, and far less dependent on allies, Dr Singh was expected to provide a more effective and decisive government. The opposite seems to have happened. Economic reforms have been completely forgotten even as the fiscal deficit has ballooned. Despite Dr. Singh staking his personal prestige, the détente with Pakistan looks increasingly like a forlorn hope. His ministers speak in discordant voices with Digvijaya Singh emerging as virtually the super-minister. In the last few months Kashmir has burned while New Delhi appears paralysed—unable to take even the most elementary steps to address this grave challenge to Indian nationhood. Tellingly the Commonwealth Games have imploded under charges of massive corruption, sloth, and sheer ineptitude.
Even the New Delhi-based media appears to have soured on Dr. Singh. What is quite remarkable is that the government has lurched from one crisis to another even in the absence of meaningful opposition. These may indeed be early warning signs, but the message appears clear and loud—there is only so long this charade can continue. Power cannot be indefinitely exercised without responsibility.
It may indeed be tempting for Mr Gandhi to continue on the same path but a course correction is advisable. The Indian electorate is now far less forgiving of bad governance than it was in 1960s and 1970s. Even the pliant middle class may turn against the Congress if economic growth is derailed. As the BJP discovered in 2004, overconfidence can sometimes extract a heavy price.
So what are the alternatives available to Mr Gandhi? One would be to allow Dr. Singh to govern without constant pressure and interventions. But in a party culture where Nehru-Gandhis have unquestionable authority, it is doubtful if such an arrangement would be possible. It is unlikely that the Gandhi family will relax its vice-like grip on the Congress party and allow a genuine alternative power centre to emerge.
The other—and only plausible alternative—is for Mr Gandhi to bite the bullet. Even those who detest Congress’ sycophantic culture and India’s dynastic politics cannot deny that Nehru-Gandhis have the mandate to rule. It is time they exercise it openly, and not in stealth. With Dr Singh touching 80, and willing to make way for Mr Gandhi, the transition can be managed smoothly.
Rahul Gandhi would then be free to pursue the policies he appears to so strenuously advocate. If his politics is truly driven by ideological convictions and not merely political expediencies, then he should have the confidence to step forward and assume responsibility. The government then would no longer be a cacophony of voices but reflect a common resolve and purpose. After that, it would be to the Indian electorate to offer its judgment on the Congress party, its leader and his policies.