Out of the Box (Off the Wall?) solutions for India’s political mess
Here are two ideas for breaking the current deadlock in India’s politics – make Sonia Gandhi the Prime Minister, and change the Opposition.
The first idea is mine and is unlikely to happen because it would be too much of a gamble for the Gandhi family, though my argument throws up some dynastic issues.
The second idea came from a frustrated foreign stockbroker and banker based in Mumbai, who wants an early general election, even though he knows it will probably lead to an even more directionless coalition government, because it would (probably) get rid of the debilitating Bharatiya Janata Party as the main opposition in parliament.
It is a measure of the plight facing India, its politics, and its badly led economy, that there is no credible and likely Congress Party candidate to be the next prime minister – hence my idea of Sonia – and that getting rid of the BJP in opposition is maybe the best thing that could happen politically.
Congress has a real leadership crisis, despite the fact that many commentators still believe that 42-year old Rahul Gandhi, heir to head both his family dynasty and the Congress Party, will emerge as a realistic prime ministerial candidate by the general election due in 2014.
Rahul however seems to have no intention of moving sufficiently into mainstream politics and the government job to warrant such a belief – and, indeed, currently has such a downbeat demeanour that it is hard to see him leading anything. He indicated in July that he was ready to play a larger role, but he has been notable since then mostly for his absence from day-to-day politics.
What he is prepared to do might become clearer later this month when long-awaited ministerial and party leadership appointments are expected. But he certainly is not at this time a realistic prime ministerial candidate – and there are no other obvious names, assuming Manmohan Singh, who is 80 later this month, retires in 2014.
Maybe Congress does not need a new leader. Since it expects to lose the 2014 election, it is probably logical for it not to name a prime ministerial candidate, but to go into the election campaign led by Sonia Gandhi, who is 65, and Rahul and current ministers. Then it can decide what to do about its leadership when a coalition government is being formed and it sees who potential partners would prefer to work with as party leader. The family could also decide, after seeing how well Rahul did in the election campaign, whether to bring Priyanka, Rahul’s more personable sister, into active politics as a potential leader.
It would be much braver however to announce – maybe in the middle of next year if not before – that Manmohan Singh is retiring immediately and that Sonia is becoming Prime Minister, as is her right as the president of the party and a member of parliament. When she declined the job in 2004, she arguably did not have the experience to take it on, but she has now gained that experience and would probably do a better job than Rahul, if only because she is in total command of the party and no longer has to prove herself.
An NDTV poll broadcast last night showed that 46% of respondents thought that Congress would do best to choose Rahul to lead it into the next election, with 33% going for Manmohan Singh and 21% for Sonia.
That is an extraordinary result from the 30,000 people polled (in about a quarter of parliamentary seats across 18 big states) because Rahul has shown absolutely no aptitude for front line day-to-day national politics, rarely speaks on current issues, and has no experience of government.
I wonder whether Sonia’s low support in the poll was mainly because she is not regarded as a candidate for the job, which she turned down in 2004. It could also partly be because she has been ill. She is currently visiting the US for medical tests, one year after an operation widely believed to have been for cancer, and she did not look well when I saw her in a Delhi art gallery ten days ago. But she has shown in the past few weeks that she can perform an active party leadership role both in parliament and outside, so would the opinion poll vote for her have been bigger if people thought she was a possible candidate?
Making her prime minister would also make her answerable publicly for the policies, notably on the economy, that she currently pushes from behind the scenes but never has to defend.
It would however almost certainly be too much of a gamble with the future of the dynasty. Everything that Sonia has done in the past 15 to 20 years shows that she sees her role primarily as a bridge between her late husband Rajiv and their son Rahul. She has worked to ensure that the dynasty survives, and has not tried to become India’s top leader. To this end, she has been much more candid and determined in naming her successor than any earlier member of the dynasty. And she has virtually every other Congress leader – including Manmohan Singh – joining her chorus for Rahul to get his act together.
Given her Italian origins, that is a logical position. But my hunch is that she is probably Congress’s best chance of avoiding appalling defeat in 2014, despite the Italian issue.
If she failed, it would be a dangerous setback for the dynasty, and could encourage rumblings about Congress having a non-Gandhi leader. That of course would be a good development because near-automatic dynastic rule and family succession is not good for a democracy.
But dynasties don’t take such gambles with their futures, so it almost certainly won’t happen, and will one of those “What If……” questions for future generations – “What if Sonia had shaken off her cautious courtiers and had made herself prime minister by 2014?”