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National Interest: His Moral Highness

After hitting the prime minister’s office,Rahul cannot afford to run.

After hitting the prime minister’s office,Rahul cannot afford to run.

What does September 27,2013 have in common with January 20,1987? And why should we call it a most stunning example of history repeating itself? Except,while it triggered the decline of the father in spite of his unprecedented majority,it has pretty much finished whatever remained of the prestige and authority of what the son described as “my government” in this afternoon’s remarkable political turning point,designed for televised flourish.

Rahul Gandhi,in short,had discovered his A.P. Venkateswaran moment. That pre-internet,pre-news TV moment needs some recalling for a nation so innocent,nearly half a billion of its people are younger than Google. At a press conference at Vigyan Bhawan,a Pakistani journalist said to Rajiv Gandhi that there was some contradiction in his statement and his foreign secretary’s (Venkateswaran) about when he was likely to visit Islamabad. Rajiv Gandhi said,quite nonchalantly in fact,“Soon,you will be talking to a new foreign secretary.” Venkat,widely respected and utterly a proper establishment man,was taken by surprise. Unwilling to take that public humiliation,he resigned the same afternoon. He did this even though he was merely 56,had been in the top job for just about nine months,and had plenty of service left.

This Friday afternoon’s drama played out at the Press Club of India,just about a kilometre up the same Lutyen’s avenue,in pretty much the same manner. The only difference being,Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had fired his foreign secretary,which he had every right to do,particularly when there were differences between them. This was a firing several ranks downwards and there was no likelihood of the then External Affairs Minister N.D. Tiwari (he of the more recent sex tapes and paternity test fame) or his MoS,K. Natwar Singh,complaining that they had been passed over in the decision. The only questionable thing was that he did this in public,at a press conference and,not to miss the foreign hand,in answer to a Pakistani journalist.

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Rahul Gandhi,as the party’s vice president,has delivered a similar blow (we are not calling it a sacking as yet as we do not know what next week has in store) several ranks upwards,at least in the constitutional scheme of things,to his own party’s prime minister. It is up to the prime minister now to decide whether he wants to close this loop of history by following Venkat’s brave example. Or,stoop to carry on as a “loyal soldier”,thereby furthering the sycophantic tradition of his party.

His admirers would wish that he chose the former. Even if,given where he is right now — in Washington,meeting Obama on Friday and Nawaz Sharif on Sunday — he is denied the freedom that Venkat had of exiting the same afternoon,he should do so immediately on his return. It would be heartbreaking for all those who admire him for his dignity,integrity and intellect — whatever the criticism of his lack of articulation or decisiveness — if he chose to simply carry on. He is not even a Gowda,or Gujral or Chandra Shekhar (although,having known him well,I doubt if the last named would have put up with this). What is more important,if he carries on,he would not merely demean himself personally,but also destroy whatever respect and authority still survives with the office of the prime minister. The prime minister’s oath of office also has an implicit responsibility to protect the preeminent decision-making authority and dignity of that office. And it is so difficult to see how Manmohan Singh would be persuaded to go down in history as somebody who so damaged it.

He also knows better than all of us that what happened now was no isolated incident. This process of pitting his government against the party,of undermining him and his office,began just as UPA 2 was sworn in. His first foreign policy initiative,the Sharm el-Sheikh joint statement with his Pakistani counterpart,was vetoed in public by his own party. He resiled in his first public humiliation by his own party (filling in quite nicely the role the Left played in UPA 1). Several party “loyalists” in his cabinet took the cue immediately,and blocked projects and decisions in areas ranging from environment,agricultural research,mining,tribal affairs,industry and so on,ruining his stellar record on economic reform and growth. All this led to the current economic and monetary crisis,while the man supposedly in charge,and the one Angela Merkel often describes as the only leader who really understands the global economic crisis,watched helplessly from the sidelines. It’s time now he said to all of them,enough. You win. Find yourselves another prime minister,or advance the polls.

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And what about Rahul Gandhi? The best thing is that he has finally spoken out,taken a stand on something. So far,he has promised to be tribal ka sipahi on one day,and kisan’s or commuter’s or migratory labourer’s or Dalits’ on other days at random,leading to unkind comments like,if he is indeed a soldier,he must be a soldier of the parachute regiment. He is also right in principle on this one. The way this law was being pushed through the ordinance route was immoral,unconstitutional and unsustainable. So it was necessary to cut your losses. But was this the right way of doing so?

This bill — even ordinance — has been under discussion at several cabinet and party and multi-party forums,and in Parliament,for quite some time now. Rahul had every opportunity through these months to intervene forcefully. It is difficult to imagine how his “dissent” would not have prevailed. But even if he was resisted,or vetoed,he had every right to go out and upbraid “my government” in public. But the time to do that was not now. Not when the cabinet has cleared the ordinance,senior ministers and your personal loyalists are defending it in public and,most importantly,when the prime minister is overseas and set for two key mini-summits. And politically,to do this 48 hours before Narendra Modi’s public meeting in Delhi? Was it meant to be some kind of belated birthday gift to your rival?

The die is now cast. And for once,Rahul has chosen to do so. So it is,in a manner of speaking,progress. He should now follow this by taking over responsibility. He should either move into the prime minister’s chair for the remaining months of this term,or get this government dissolved and advance general elections to November,along with the five state assemblies. A leader at his level cannot do a hit-and-run. And in any case,the rules of engagement have now been redefined. If his coalition were to win,and another lesser mortal appointed prime minister,he and the rest of us citizens will also have to be mindful of the precedent already set: that he and his cabinet could be similarly flogged in public by a higher power within the party,the Constitution notwithstanding. India cannot survive another term under a Prime Minister Lite. So it is imperative that Rahul now unequivocally declare himself as the party’s candidate for prime minister in the next election,and give the voters a clear choice. Or,who knows,this will end up as another likely Congress story,with one side expressing qualified regrets and the other,unqualified gratitude,so status quo prevails,even if the status of each is greatly diminished.

sg@expressindia.com

First published on: 28-09-2013 at 03:18:27 am
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