India: Chair Gandhi And CEO Singh - The Centre Is Holding


Rakesh Ahuja

Six months into its rule, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition is firming as a politically stable Government, seemingly capable of driving its policy agenda on the back of an unlikely partnership in power between an odd pair, the signora and the Sikh.

The Congress Party, when in power, always functioned on the basis that it was synonymous with the Government and its Prime Minister the top political honcho irrespective of whether s/he was also the party chief. Sonia Gandhi turned that model on its head last year when she renounced the Prime Ministership in favour of Dr Manmohan Singh, and chose to rule the political stable as Congress President and Coordinator of the UPA. In effect, that duality put the party at an arm's length from the government, in a style more akin to Westminster than Soviet arrangements. It also prompted scenarios of tensions between parallel power centres and of possible policy sclerosis.

Pessimistic predictions of instability at the centre have since been belied by an unprecedented working arrangement under which Gandhi as Chair, primus inter pares, and Singh as CEO share power in running India Inc. The division of labour is mutually advantageous. It insulates the Government from day-to-day political static, leaving the party to chart its electoral strategy, keep the UPA partners in line and manage their daily contretemps, a bane of Indian coalitions.

This structure suits Singh to a tee. He has no political base and no taste for the hurly burly of politics; indeed, critics charge him with being gentler than is good for the country. It is also reminiscent of his position in the last Congress Government (1991-1996), when Prime Minister Rao protected him from political pressures as he, then Finance Minister, went about unshackling the Indian command economy. Now Mrs. Gandhi is shielding him from political stresses and strains as he implements the coalition's Common Minimum Programme (CMP).

It also suits Mrs Gandhi. Her political networks and power base are expanding as she micro-manages the federal and regional party organisations and deals with parliamentary allies. Her deft operating style of calculated ambiguity and decisiveness is earning her kudos as politically savvy. She remains free of the taint of exercising extra constitutional authority. Her pan-India popularity is growing even among the urban chattering classes, mostly BJP acolytes. And the emotive controversy about a (white) foreign woman leading the country has by and large been stilled.

While these are early days, the efficacy of the partnership between the non-political mandarin and the newly born politician is evident in their successful navigation of a raft of policies through the shoals of conflicting demands from special interest-based regional allies and the sniping Left (which extends Parliamentary support to the UPA). A policy programme, comprising a judicious mix of continuity (foreign policy, economic reforms) and change ('new deal' for rural India) is on the anvil.

The stage is thus set for a cooperative duumvirate - at least in the medium term. The balance of probabilities argues against Mrs Gandhi entertaining immediate, higher ambitions to capitalise on her unmatched stature across the political landscape. The principal constraint she faces is one of her own making. Any perceptible hankering for the good Doctor's job would undermine the very basis of Mrs Gandhi's unexpected empowerment - her renunciation of that job in the first place.

WATCHPOINT: Elections in three states in February will provide a measure of Congress' electoral standing and test UPA's stability as its constituents contest each other at the regional level.


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