India election: Is Rahul Gandhi making his move?By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay Oct 01, 2013 11:46AM UTC
For the past several months Indian politics has been in a fixed mode: fortification of bunkers that have been swiftly built to enable extreme Hindu nationalist leader and Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime minister designate Narendra Modi to launch a frontal assault on his main electoral adversary, the ruling Congress party. On this linear trajectory where nothing has seemed to unsettle Modi and no one has been able to display the ability to thwart him from inching towards his goal of becoming the top executive, a sudden spin was given by scion of the Gandhi family, Rahul Gandhi on Friday, September 27.
On that sunny afternoon, Gandhi gatecrashed a pre-scheduled meet-the-press programme of party apparatchik, Ajay Maken, being held in the premises of Press Club of India, which ironically was once the residence Rahul’s grandfather.
The 43-year old vice president of the Congress party almost walked on the same path as his grandfather who first blew the whistle on India’s first case of political corruption in the late 1950s and embarrassed his father-in-law, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In the case of Rahul, what he said was the first public castigation of his party’s government since it came to power in 2004. In the public eye, Gandhi’s statement was nothing short of berating the prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
In focus was a controversial law that the government proposes to introduce to prevent disqualification of lawmakers convicted for criminal offences. The matter has seized political parties in recent weeks as several significant parliamentarians faced disqualification – including political allies of the ruling coalition. Gandhi dramatically stated that he believed that the proposed legislation – pending with the Indian President for approval as an interim law till it secures parliamentary mandate – should be ‘torn up and thrown away’. This was interpreted – quite naturally – that Gandhi and his mother, Italian-born Sonia disapproved of Singh’s decision taken shortly before he embarked on a bilateral visit to the United States and hold parleys on the sidelines of the United National General Assembly with Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.
Singh’s loyalists responded to his public humiliation and short-circuiting of the government process of decision-making by arguing that the prime minister should put in his papers. The viewpoint – also reiterated by several columnists and opinion makers – created a buzz in India’s unidirectional political track. Was Rahul Gandhi’s outburst a part of a strategy to force Singh to step aside barely months before India heads into a crucial general election? Was Gandhi preparing to finally shed the image of being a reluctant leader and take charge of his party’s electoral campaign by becoming prime minister, dropping the old guard among ministers and replacing them with a younger team of personal loyalists?
Caught in a bind at the unexpected development, Modi went into an unexpected defence of Singh at his showpiece election rally in the Indian capital on Sunday, September 29. He raised the alleged slight of Singh by Nawaz Sharif at an off-the-record briefing with sub-continental scribes in New York and said that the prime minister was being shamed abroad because he was being targeted by his party.
It is not difficult to comprehend reasons behind Modi’s line in his speech and also why he upped the ante against Rahul Gandhi. If The Congress does effect a generational change before the elections and Gandhi becomes prime minister at the head of a young team, he would wrest away from Modi his plank of imparting a certain element of ‘newness’ in Indian politics. If Gandhi was to actually throw out a law to protect convicted lawmakers, he would usurp the moral plank from Modi as being the sole custodian of public propriety. If there is a new leader at the helm of Congress, it will delink itself from the image of a moribund edifice that has come to be identified with the present government. The only untested area would be Modi’s charismatic appeal versus Gandhi’s charm and the Indians’ reverence to the ‘family’.
Singh on his part is to return to India late on Tuesday and has convened a meeting on Wednesday October 2, coincidentally the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, a public holiday to pay obeisance to the apostle of peace. This is a week that will greatly determine the nature of India’s impending election campaign. A further spin was added on Monday, September 30 when speaking at a public rally in distant Karnataka, Sonia Gandhi strongly supported Singh, raising the question whether there was disconnect between mother and son.
India and the world – this includes Modi and his party – will wait with bated breath to see the developments in coming days. Will Singh once again accept reversal of government policy due to party pressure or will he choose to walk into the sunset? If the former scenario becomes reality will Rahul Gandhi remain a leader who never had the gumption when it mattered most and someone who jumped the gun? The events within the Congress party will also determine if Modi will continue with the issues being raised by him so far. Or will he be forced to change tack and grope for fresh strategies. If that happens, the political script in India could be turned upside down.