By Swapan Dasgupta
Every time a political crisis hits an otherwise stable government, Lutyens' Delhi resonates with talk of an imminent Cabinet reshuffle. This summer—a time when the great and the good are either on holiday or engaging in meaningful study tours of countries where summers are more agreeable—an almighty political crisis has hit the UPA Government. However, instead of the bush telegraph choking with speculative tittle-tattle over who's in and who's out, the creative energies of the Congress are being otherwise misspent.
The redoubtable Hindu has reported a proposed "publicity blitz" by the Congress to deconstruct the Yoga-guru Baba Ramdev's anti-corruption campaign by focussing on the Sangh Parivar's 'nefarious strategy', while simultaneously highlighting the steps the UPA government had taken—and would be taking—to tackle the twin problems of black money and corruption." If nothing, this "mandate" is reassuringly familiar. Those with memory on their side will recall the "anti-fascist" movement launched by the Congress and its slavish Communist ally in 1974-75 against Jayaprakash Narayan.
So, what explains the insignificant chatter in Delhi's political beltway about an imminent Cabinet reshuffle?
Part of the reason could be attributed to the fact that the proprietors of the Congress are away on holiday. For all the secrecy surrounding their every step and their studied silence on issues of contemporary concern, they could well have been on holiday for months without anyone being the wiser. Most Congress aspirants also know by now that lobbying Race Course Road is a waste of time. In the Congress-led UPA, the Prime Minister presides over the Cabinet; he doesn't appoint it.
The relative tranquillity on the Cabinet reshuffle front doesn't imply that politics has finally taken a much-needed breather. On the contrary, the Congress has been on political over-drive since Anna Hazare was anointed the sole spokesman of Civil Society by a panic-stricken government and a pumped up media. But the talk in the gatherings of the Bent and the Beautiful isn't over the likelihood of Anand Sharma fulfilling his life's ambition to be Foreign Minister or the risks in Jairam Ramesh reverting to vendetta environmentalism. Cabinet reshuffle was the day before yesterday's story; today's hot speculation is centred on Kaun banega Pradhan Mantri?
Is Manmohan Singh batting the final overs of his long innings at the crease? When will the non-playing Captain signal to him to either depart "retired hurt" or get himself out? Earlier the suggestion was that the good doctor would be told to vacate Race Course Road and move into Rashtrapati Bhavan to coincide with Pratibha Patil shift into a less grand Lutyens house. Of late, however, there are suggestions of a timetable change. The proverbial well-informed 'sources' speak of the next two months being critical and bureaucrats with sensitive antennae refer to a long-distance race in its final lap.
It is sometimes difficult to make complete sense of the cross-currents in the Congress party, but it relevant to observe the trends. First, in the aftermath of the Anna-Baba incidents, the criticism of the Government by people holding posts in the party is becoming shriller and more frequent. Initially, it was Digvijay Singh who played the Lone Ranger and Mani Shankar Aiyar the Mad Hatter. But of late even the likes of Anil Shastri are inclined to take pot shots at the government. And Minister of State V. Narainswamy's admission that in all matters the party prevails over the government was read by many as marking the beginning of the endgame for the Prime Minister.
Secondly, to talk about the competitors beginning their dash in the last rounds is misplaced. What we are witnessing instead is the process of elimination. For the first time since the Congress returned to power in 2002, an attack was launched on Pranab Mukherjee by no less a person than a General Secretary. This was accompanied by a wave of concern in relevant circles over allegations of favouritism and hanky-panky in the Finance Ministry.
Nor was Pranab babu singled out for deflation. P.Chidambaram's balloon was said to have been pricked when he was sharply attacked in the presence of the ubiquitous 'Madam' for the Ramlila grounds mess. To the Congress durbar what mattered was that 'Madam' did not rise to the Home Minister's defence.
But why is this 'elimination' round necessary if the Congress knows who the chosen successor to Singh is?
The answer is not necessarily straight. Rahul Baba is the designated heir to the throne but, unfortunately, inspires little confidence in his leadership abilities. Even Congress loyalists feel that his approach is too casual, patchy and lacking in gravitas. There is also concern that an impressionable (if not gullible) Rahul is now under the direct control of what is increasingly being called a 'Thakur cabal'. This cabal, said to be masterminded by Digvijay Singh, is increasingly calling the shots, dictating policy and exacerbating the gulf between the Government and the party.
To many, the emasculation of the Prime Minister's leadership is a diabolical response to the inability of the heir apparent to take off. By first creating a demand for a leadership change, then undermining (or scaring off) all other 'non-family' contenders and finally, setting up a clamour for Rahul that others can't dare oppose, the 'Thakur lobby' may well be preparing the ground for a political coup that puts them in control of India.