No trumpets blaring, no cymbals clashing. “It was a routine visit,” said the PMO, about Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi calling on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on October 17, just a day after Singh met President Pranab Mukherjee.
The meeting came amidst Congress workers calling for a radical rejuvenation of the political environment, with Rahul as its fulcrum. The auspicious Navratri period had begun and good things were expected. Congress president Sonia Gandhi, too, had met the President during the week. And it soon became clear that Rahul was not taking just another walkabout to 7 Race Course Road.
The meeting on October 17 highlighted Rahul's footprint on key issues in both the government and the party. The meeting put the final touches, said a party leader, on launching the first stage of an ambitious GenNext plan. A plan that would “significantly recharge the inner dynamics of the government and the party in the 18-month run-up to the next general elections.”
The more crucial Stage II would be rolled out either in early November or just after Diwali, and officially anoint Rahul as working president or secretary-general. It would give him complete power on all important appointments and decision-making, powers equalled only by the Congress chief.
Kiran Kumar Reddy, chief minister, Andhra Pradesh, had met the Prime Minister just before Rahul. AP had yielded the highest number of Lok Sabha seats for the Congress in the last elections. But, now, Telangana and the Jaganmohan Reddy juggernaut are poised to upset the Congress apple cart.
Roughly 10 days after Rahul's meeting, external affairs minister S.M. Krishna quit, and said that he would be working for the party. He asserted that it was time for young blood. Mukul Wasnik, minister for social justice and empowerment, and Ambika Soni, minister for information and broadcasting, and Subodh Kant Sahai, minister for mining, quit soon after.
Over the hectic Bakrid weekend, Singh undertook the ministerial reshuffle which involved one-third of his council of ministers; his fifth and, maybe, final reshuffle before key Assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Andhra Pradesh, naturally, received the biggest bounty, followed by West Bengal, where the near-dormant Congress is planning an aggressive recoup. All seven ministers of former UPA ally Trinamool Congress had quit in September, protesting the hike in LPG and diesel prices. Another ally, the DMK, lost two of its ministers, Dayanidhi Maran and A. Raja, to 2G scam charges; the party refused fresh berth offers.
It was clear that the ministerial reshuffle would be mostly a Congress show. And, it was clear that it would be a huge political handicap for Rahul to enter Singh's cabinet at a time when it was staggering under charges of administrative paralysis, corruption, spiralling price of essentials and an economic downturn. With just over a year left before the general elections, it could even prove highly counterproductive.
“To overcome the patent disadvantages that it now suffers from, the Congress needs someone to lead from the front who has a definite vision for the party and the country,” said a politician and analyst, once regarded to be close to Rajiv Gandhi. “Rajiv only took over the party under compulsion, but he had that vision. Team Rahul's best bet at rejuvenating the party and transforming public perception of its government can only be realised if a like-minded group of doers and achievers in the party and government work in sync.
“The latter would have to work on a war-footing on two tracks: one, to visibly improve the economy over the next year and, two, to translate pro-people programmes spelt out in the last Budget... especially those involving direct transfer of cash subsidy. It is crucial that changes within the government are in sync with changes in the party organisation.”
Rahul's key brief would be to set the tone and pace for the Congress's battle moves for the Lok Sabha polls, which a good section of politicians believe may now be pre-term. Part of the core strategy was to make a break with the party's existing chain of command. This could involve “reassigning roles” to current bigwigs such as Soni and Wasnik and Ahmed Patel, Sonia's political secretary.
“I am quite sure the developments will make a big difference to the party,” said general secretary Digvijaya Singh, who “mentored” Rahul during the last UP Assembly elections. “The Congress president will direct and we will implement strategies under Rahul's baton.”
Against that backdrop, many party leaders were keenly searching for overt signs of Rahul's stamp and style in the reshuffle. But the signs, if any, were muted. Nor was there much evidence of a well-planned method aimed at synchrony.
“You had to search for subtle signals of a coherent youth factor or Rahul's hand, in other words. The average age of the ministerial council was peripherally down, but the leitmotif of fresh blood, fresh ideas and drive that one was looking for was missing for the most part,” pointed out Yogendra Yadav, senior fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
To be fair, Sunday's roll call has placed some from the so-called Rahul brigade in key positions. Examples are Jyotiraditya Scindia as minister of state (independent charge) for power and Sachin Pilot as MoS (independent charge) for corporate affairs. By posting aggressive and vocal party spokesperson Manish Tewary as information and broadcasting minister, the expectation was that he would put a positive spin on news affecting the government.
Jitendra Singh, too, was promoted, as was the suave Pallam Raju, AP leader from the Kapu community, which is loyal to the Congress. But others considered close to the Gandhi scion and tipped off for an early entry into the council such as Manick Tagore and Meenakshi Natarajan (she of the Gag The Press private members' bill fame) failed to make the cut.
“I do not influence such things,” Rahul told the media, denying any role in the reshuffle. That is in line with others who believe that the elevation of Ajay Maken and Pilot was on account of their efficiency as ministers, rather than their proximity to Rahul. The elevation of Scindia and Daggubati Purandeswari was viewed in the context of their coming from politically strong lineage in key states.
Political historian Ramachandra Guha described the ministerial reshuffle as timid, dismissing the possibility of any big political gains. “It was,” he said, “too little, too late.” By implication, the exercise did not flatter Rahul Gandhi's qualities as a political strategist. “The party is still unwilling to elevate any of Rahul's cohorts to cabinet rank, since he himself remains outside,” he said.
This is a view that archly is confirmed by others who contend that the original exercise may have borne a stronger imprint of Rahul, in anticipation of his entry into the government. “The original plan was a ministerial roll call that showcased Rahul Gandhi's handpicked candidates,” said a political analyst in the know. “They would gain good administrative experience and would be picked up for his own team, should the Congress once again be in a position to lead the government. But, there were, perhaps, many slips between the cup and lip, many compromises, political compulsions and internal pressures, for instance, to focus on some individual states, drop individual ministers such as Jaipal Reddy, who is an old world socialist, despite his efficiency, and to promote and to include some of the Prime Minister's men such as Ashwani Kumar and Shashi Tharoor in the recast council of ministers. That lent a strong element of incoherence, even arrogance, to the entire exercise, because it appeared to snub key voter concerns such as corruption and price rise.”
Within the party, the widespread view is that with the charges of financial irregularity against BJP chief Nitin Gadkari coming to the fore, the Congress will now have a level playing field over corruption. Besides, corruption charges had stopped neither Indira Gandhi nor Rajiv from bouncing back. “Individual corruption charges have worked to patent disadvantage more at the local and regional levels,” said a party leader.
Singh's pet technocrat in the government and architect of UIDAI, Nandan Nilekani, maintained that the key public concern of corruption would be best fought by arming citizens with the customised Aadhar financial address. For sure, it was planned to facilitate direct cash transfer to the eligible, thereby building a positive perception of the government at the grassroots.
Dismissing any comparison to the Kamaraj Plan, a CPI leader said, “There is no boldness and political will. The party leadership still blindly believes that tinkering with the cabinet will help radically restructure the negative perception of the government before the general elections.
“In fact, the government seems blind to public concerns. Sahai has been dropped for his alleged role in the coal scam, but Salman Khurshid has been elevated despite corruption charges. Others under a cloud such as Sriprakash Jaiswal and Beni Prasad Verma have been left untouched. Karnataka's Rahman Khan, known for the Wakf land scam, was rewarded, while an efficient Jaipal Reddy was shunted out. If this is Rahul's imprint, it may not be what is prescribed for the Congress.”
But there was, definitely, a method to the reshuffle. AP's ministerial count touched double digits because recent surveys done by the Congress leadership categorically pointed to a rout of the party in the state. But no one from the pro-Telangana lobby has been inducted, a move that might backfire. Indications are that the Congress is in favour of a united AP.
Sarve Satyanarayana and Balram Naik were rewarded for staying loyal to the Congress in the Telangana issue. The more vocal, but highly able party MPs from Telangana, such as Eluru Sambasiva Rao, who shot off a resignation letter to Speaker Meira Kumar, were flatly rejected. Other pro-Telangana Congress MPs like Madhu Yaskhi, Ponnam Prabhakar, Gutha Sukender Reddy, Manda Jagannath, S. Rajaiah and G. Vivekananda were also pointedly sidelined.
Among other AP ministers, K.J.S.P. Reddy, three-time MP and son of former chief minister K. Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy, was made minister to woo the Reddy community, whom Jagan is wooing. Dr Kruparani Killi, a first time MP from Srikakulam, comes from the backward Kalinga subcaste, a potential vote bank. Like Pallam Raju, actor Chiranjeevi, too, is from the Kapu community. The actor's Praja Rajyam Party, now merged with the Congress, had garnered 18 per cent of the vote in the last Assembly elections.
From West Bengal, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who is considered close to President Mukherjee, and Deepa Dasmunsi were picked for their strident anti-Mamata Banerjee stance. The promotion of these two, done in consultation with Shakeel Ahmed, party general secretary in charge of the state, is a direct snub to Mamata and an assertion of the UPA's economic position. The third minister, A.H. Khan Choudhury, brother of party stalwart A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury, is expected to sway Muslim votes.
Sources say the party sought Krishna's resignation to project him as a prospective chief minister in Karnataka, a state currently with the BJP. The Congress's traditional Dalit vote bank was sought to be buttressed by the induction of K.H. Muniyappa, and Rahman Khan will be expected to shore up the minority vote bank.
Curiously, the Congress appears to have lacked the will to “adequately” represent big states such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. While MP has the elevated Scindia, Rajasthan is represented only by Lal Chand Kataria and C.P. Joshi.
Kerala got Kodikunnil Suresh and Shashi Tharoor. Suresh was made minister with an eye on the Dalit vote bank, which usually votes for the Left. And, Kerala has been witnessing protests over the “communal imbalance” in the state cabinet. So, both ministers sworn in at the Centre are Hindus this time.
The reshuffle exercise also irked many within and outside. They include Jaipal Reddy and Srikant Jena, who was not elevated to a cabinet rank despite his seniority. Digvijaya expressed disappointment on behalf of party workers in Madhya Pradesh, while Vilas Muttemwar from Maharashtra sulked.
The Samajwadi Party's Ram Gopal Yadav publicly voiced his irritation at Khurshid's elevation, and BJP spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said, “The illogical exercise smacks of the Congress's desperation. Strangely, it is trying to prove how clean it is by polishing the mirror, instead of washing its tarred face.” Analyst and former Samajwadi Party member Shahid Siddiqui said, “This was a lost golden opportunity to appoint well regarded experts such as Dr M.S. Swaminathan to spearhead fundamental changes in key crisis areas such as the farm sector. That would have galvanised public belief in the Congress's commitment to clean up its act. They goofed up.”
Yogendra Yadav agreed that the lack of a positive message to address heightened public concerns could be a bad political move in a last reshuffle before the general elections. He, however, feels that although it was declining in popularity, Singh's dispensation did not totally lack legislative support despite being a minority government. There remained, therefore, the possibility that some of the pending economic bills could be pushed through and “sectarian” corporate interests aimed at boosting the capital markets be served. But a party would find itself better served politically if it focused on the social sector and on pushing through the food security bill and the land acquisition bill.
Perhaps, Rahul heard this. A draft bill drawn up by the Sharad Pawar-headed group of ministers approved assent of only two-thirds of land owners for acquisition. Dubbed pro-industry, it is now being rewritten to make 80 per cent assent mandatory. That was, apparently, one issue Rahul has been rooting for. Now, for the political sequel to Stage I, watch this space.