Byline by M J Akbar: The Public Faces of Power
Dr Manmohan Singh is the Abdul Kalam of politics: both are admired among the middle classes for decency, integrity, education and achievement in their preferred discipline. Sometimes it takes a tragedy like ill health to evoke emotion, and the response in the urban areas to the Prime Minister's hospitalisation must have come as a bit of shock to the Congress Party, which had convinced itself that Sonia Gandhi was its only mass leader and Rahul Gandhi the only possible heir. Dr Manmohan Singh today is far more popular than the Congress president among the middle class.
But this popularity, in all cases, is hedged with a problem: there is what might be called insufficient ownership of their identity among voters. Christians do identify with Mrs Sonia Gandhi, but in demographic terms they are too small and too thinly spread. Dr Singh has never been a conventional politician from Punjab, while Muslims do not really think of Dr Kalam as one of their own. But Dr Singh and Dr Kalam are icons of an emerging, non-sectarian India that will come into its own, electorally, five or ten years later. Their support is largely among the young. It is a foolish notion that youth only wants youth. The young want someone who can offer a future, which is quite a different matter. Age is incidental, neither an asset nor a liability. Both Dr Singh and Dr Kalam are in their 70s. Ability, backed up by a successful track record, is essential. Tomorrow's electorate will vote on merit, not reservation.
That is going to be a problem for the Congress, which cannot think outside hereditary reservation when it comes to a post-Manmohan Prime Minister. On the eve of going to hospital for his heart treatment Dr Singh did what was proper, and nominated his senior-most colleague in the Cabinet, Pranab Mukherjee, as the person who would stand in for him during the crucial hours under anaesthesia and for the period of his convalescence. It seems that Mrs Sonia Gandhi was unable to live with the minimalist necessity of Mukherjee becoming the public face of Government at the Republic Day parade and functions. This would mean televisual presence, sending a signal that Mukherjee was the natural successor to Dr Singh. Instructions were amended and the public face of power was distributed into a Picasso duality. Defence Minister A.K. Antony was given the high-profile presence at the Republic Day parade. He had one specific virtue. He is not a declared player in the Prime Ministers' stakes, a race that will open the moment the results of this year's general elections are announced. Pranab Mukherjee, on the other hand, is going to be an enthusiastic participant.
Dr Singh was not playing favourites when he named Mukherjee to stand in for him. Pranab Mukherjee has carried this Government through some difficult challenges in the past four years. His reward has been rejection. The Left wanted him as President instead of the insipid Pratibha Patil. He wanted the job as well. But Mrs Sonia Gandhi rejected the proposal, arguing that he was too invaluable in Government. If she meant what she said, she should have publicly endorsed Dr Singh's decision instead of amending it.
Veerappa Moily attempted a specious explanation, that there could not be two Prime Ministers at one time. He got it completely wrong. The last thing that the nation can afford is confusion over Constitutional authority while a Prime Minister is under anaesthesia. India is a nuclear power, but this is probably less important than the fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. There is tension between the two nations. Dr Manmohan Singh understood that you couldn't play politics with security.
Dr Singh's medical condition is a clear setback for the Congress. His heart condition will prevent him from campaigning as vigorously as the party would want. This is not a provincial election. This is an election for his job. The Congress, and the UPA, might need to offer a number two even if the number one remains in place. Rahul Gandhi has not acquired the gravitas necessary for the job, and those with gravitas do not seem acceptable to Mrs Sonia Gandhi because they would be a threat to her son's ambitions. Sharad Pawar, for instance, has already indicated through a spokesman that there is no reason why he cannot lead the alliance.
If Dr Singh is the Kalam of politics, can Kalam become the Manmohan Singh of the future? The thought must have occurred to someone. There is already talk that if the verdict of this year's general election is fractured, then someone like Kalam could be offered leadership of a national Government. This is probably far-fetched, but stranger things have happened. Who expected Dr Singh to become Prime Minister?
On a more realistic note, the Kalam projection is an over-stretch. The NDA has the advantage of clarity on who would be Prime Minister if it got the numbers, which is L.K. Advani, but then it must get the numbers. There is an "if" hanging over every destiny, which is what makes Indian democracy the most fascinating exercise in international politics. No election is a mirror of the other. The mood needs to shift marginally to create new configurations in the kaleidoscope. Aspirations might solidify into ambition if a regional party does exceptionally well, and the BJP under-performs. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar might even woo the Muslim voter by implying that if he gets enough seats, he could be the NDA nominee for Prime Minister.
The field is open until the home stretch, when the numbers will tell us which horse is the winner.