New Delhi: When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s black BMW reached Sonia Gandhi’s 10, Janpath residence on Saturday, the beaming Congress party president walked up to greet him.
Winning combination: UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after the results were annnounced on Saturday. PTI
The self-effacing Singh stepped out of the car, slightly bowing his head in a gesture of respect, and started walking towards the house, ignoring the media throng outside. Election results were showing the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition it leads coursing inexorably towards victory.
Gandhi gently prodded Singh, who had been projected as the UPA’s unrivalled prime ministerial candidate, to speak to the media, yielding him centre stage, and Singh readily faced the television cameras.
The anecdote illustrates the mutual respect and comfort level that has developed between Gandhi, 62, and Singh, 76, as the party and the coalition bask in electoral success and prepare to assume office for a second straight term, observers say. Gandhi has always taken care to ensure that the economist-Prime Minister, not a natural politician, feels at ease, whether at party meetings or in Parliament.
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Political analyst Amitabh Mattoo, who closely watches developments within the Congress party, calls the association between the two a “perfect and complete meeting of minds”. And the Congress and the UPA performance in the general election shows that the duo had delivered results as a team, Mattoo said.
Ever since Singh was chosen to lead the UPA government in May 2004, Gandhi, joined by her son and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi and daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, has been vocal in defending the Prime Minister against opposition attacks.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has often alleged that the real power rests with 10, Janpath and not with 7, Race Course Road, the Prime Minister’s official residence, after Gandhi chose Singh to head the government five years ago, turning down the job herself.
BJP leader L.K. Advani often called Singh India’s weakest prime minister during the latest election campaign, saying he was only a nominal head of government. Singh and Rahul Gandhi hit back by questioning Advani’s track record as home minister during the BJP’s spell in power.
“I do not consider Manmohan Singh a heavyweight,” says Seshadri Chari, a former member of the BJP National Executive. “It was Sonia Gandhi only (who held the reins of power) earlier, now it is Rahul Gandhi also. As far as Manmohan Singh is concerned, he is just a pawn in the hands of Gandhi parivar (family).”
But observers say there’s no doubting the mutual respect between the party president and the Prime Minister and the fact that they work as a team. Whenever the duo appears before the media or in public, Gandhi stands one or two steps behind Singh as a mark of respect.
At one Congress plenary session in Delhi in 2007, Gandhi urged party delegates to applaud him louder after he spoke. And at one point, when she noticed that the Prime Minister didn’t look comfortable sitting on the mattress that had been placed on the stage, she offered one of the two bolsters she was using to Singh.
Ahead of this general election, she had been categorical that Singh would be the party’s prime ministerial candidate. On 24 March, while releasing the Congress manifesto, Gandhi was visibly irritated when journalists repeatedly asked her about the prime ministerial candidacy.
“I have answered this question many times... What else I can say?” she asked. When someone repeated the question, Gandhi picked up the party manifesto document that had Singh’s and her pictures on the cover. She then covered the image of her face with her hand and asked: “Did you see this (showing Singh’s face)? What more should I say?”
Rahul Gandhi, considered the mastermind of the Congress’ victory in this election, told journalists during the poll campaign: “From my side, I know—and I do know my mother’s views on this—he is the best prime ministerial candidate.”
Analysts say the relationship derives its strength from Gandhi and Singh sticking to their roles—as party chief and prime minister, respectively.
While Singh’s government focuses on governance, the economy and reform, Gandhi, as UPA chairperson, does make suggestions.
She urged the government to provide enough funds and resources to flagship programmes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which provides 100 days of employment to one member of every rural family each year. And she also sounded a caution to the government on fully opening up the retail sector to foreign companies.
According to a civil servant, Gandhi also insists on displaying support for the Prime Minister, even if it’s symbolic.
The civil servant, who didn’t want to be named, said Singh had once sent a letter to all his cabinet colleagues asking them not to arrive at the airport to see him off for a foreign trip.
“On the same day, Gandhi’s office telephoned all the ministers to tell them to ignore the letter and be present at the airport at the time of the Prime Minister’s departure,” he recalled.
“She explained that being present at the airport should not be seen as a wastage of time. It shows the collectiveness of the cabinet and that by being there the ministers are exhibiting their moral support to the Prime Minister,” he said.
Gandhi herself makes it a point to see him off at the airport whenever Singh travels abroad.
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint