Manmohan Singh’s heart operation today raises questions about who will emerge as prime minister if the Congress Party leads the next coalition government after the general election due by April.
People can make full recoveries from this sort of triple bypass, but the prime minister’s 76 years, and the fact that he had bypass surgery some years ago, complicates matters.
He is likely to be away from fully active work for more than the two weeks that are currently being forecast – that is the minimum and it could be more like a month or even longer.
This will give Pranab Mukherjee, the highly capable foreign minister who is the acting finance minister, and in effect the unofficial acting prime minister, time to display his abilities, and his loyalty to the Gandhi dynasty’s current leaders Sonia Gandhi, the Congress leader, and her late-30s son Rahul, who is seen as a future prime minister.
But will Manmohan Singh want to serve again as prime minister after the elections? If he is fit enough, the answer is certainly yes. But if his health is ailing, he might want to opt for retirement, much as he would like to remain in office till Rahul Gandhi is ready, perhaps in two years time, to be prime minister.
So who would Sonia choose? Probably not Mukherjee because the dynasty would worry that, like Narasimha Rao who became prime minister in 1991 after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, he would emerge as a strong wilful prime minister reluctant to hand over to Rahul.
Dynasties don’t trust outsiders unless, like Manmohan Singh, they have no personal career ambitions.
Who then? Could it be that Sonia herself would take over, with Rahul at her side? Or would Rahul step in? Time will tell!