It was the positive equivalent of a perfect storm: an electoral win by an unexpectedly large margin; its key architect Rahul Gandhi, political heir apparent to Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, fading into the background like the comic book hero Superboy, and clearing the way for Manmohan Singh to serve a second consecutive term as prime minister: the Communists, allies-turned-opponents; and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) both decimated and demoralized; and an ambitious 100-day agenda that promised everything—from policies for the pro-liberalization lobby to more sops for the less privileged—to everyone, threatening to further squeeze the Opposition’s political space.
It was too good to last and when it ended, the stage was set for a week of palace intrigue, the likes of which we have not seen for a while.
Also Read Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns
Singh’s out-of-the-box offer, which in retrospect seems to have been his own initiative, to encourage a permanent solution to a six-decade problem, Pakistan, triggered the first serious governance challenge to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The ambiguously worded joint statement signed in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, designed to give political space to the Pakistan establishment to act against extremists responsible for recent acts of cross-border terrorism in India, was interpreted as a sell-out to what many believe to be a renegade state.
The fallout was immediate. An issueless BJP was suddenly galvanized; forgetting for a moment its fight within and putting the government on the mat, as it were. Almost simultaneously there was disquiet within the ranks of the Congress party; initially it was a murmur of protest, but later, clearly blessed by the party high command, the decibel level grew louder and threatened to get out of control. All of a sudden, Singh seemed to be politically vulnerable, and challenges surfaced within the cabinet, too. While the resistance was carefully calibrated on legitimate issues, the target was clearly the Prime Minister.
First, several senior ministers, and in typical Congress style, sotto voce, let it be known that the party was surprised by the joint statement with Pakistan and did not support it. Second, they voiced their protest, once again sotto voce through newspapers, against the End-User Verification Agreement signed during US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s visit.
The agreement allows the US to inspect military hardware sold to India, and the ministers said it impinged on the country’s sovereignty. Third, a cabinet meeting late on Thursday night was turned into a policy battleground with key ministers opposing a free trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and a new legislation that would reorganize land acquisition.
Although the Asean deal was approved, the internal dissent, orchestrated by those seen to be politically close to Sonia Gandhi, forced Singh to concede to the setting up of a group of ministers to address the grievances. Trenchant opposition from Trinamool Congress leader and railway minister Mamata Banerjee torpedoed the proposed land acquisition Bill.
The UPA may well recover from its first governance challenge. And there are indications that Sonia Gandhi is moving to deflate the political challenge from within the Congress so as to present a united front when Parliament takes up the joint statement with Pakistan for a special discussion later this week.
However, the honeymoon is over for the UPA. The Opposition, though in disarray, is likely to be less of a pushover. Most importantly, the events have blown away the myth about Singh being apolitical. It may indeed have been a clumsy effort, but Singh has clearly shown his willingness to play for high stakes, and very skilfully at that. The understatement of his political skills is what has caught Singh’s critics by surprise because inevitably they have underestimated him. Now, they would be wiser.
In July last year, a similar fait accompli, the nuclear deal with the US, had thrust the first UPA government into the throes of a political crisis that threatened its survival. Not only did it survive, but the Congress party came out of it stronger.
Singh has never looked back since, asserting himself in a calibrated manner that does not challenge the political power centre in the Congress. Every incident tests and defines new boundaries in the unique relationship between Singh and Sonia Gandhi. Then and now, the saviour was Sonia Gandhi, reaffirming the ultimate truth that the party president calls the shots.
For a while Singh will be on the defensive. Luckily for him and the Congress, this session of Parliament will conclude in the first week of August and spare them some public blushes.
But palace intrigue can never be underestimated. A more assertive Singh is bound to generate more hostility from within. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, it will be interesting to see whether it will grow to the proportions last witnessed in the early 1990s when the Congress had undertaken a similar experiment in governance with another non-Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, at the helm.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org