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Not his Mistress's voice

By Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
May 19, 2004 23:17 IST
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Political observers and Maharashtra's residents are aware of the concept of politics run by 'remote control'.

When the Shiv Sena came to power in the state in 1996, the lord and master of the party, Bal Thackeray, anointed Manohar Joshi as the chief minister but declared firmly he would hold the remote control. This meant he would have the final say in all policy matters. The result, often, was confusion and misunderstandings.

Now, there are fears that with Sonia Gandhi anointing Manmohan Singh prime minister, she will run the government by proxy and Singh will be forced to refer to her on major decisions and defer to her wishes on policies. Adding grist to the mill is the fact that Sonia Gandhi intends to remain Congress Parliamentary Party leader.

Yet this might not be the case.

Certainly, on key issues and given the fact that Singh will be running a massive coalition, major decisions will be taken through consensus not just within the party, but also with its allies within and without the United Progressive Front. This tightrope walk is something that will test the patience and skill of both Singh and the Congress.

But one must remember that both Gandhi and Singh have the utmost regard and respect for each other and she is unlikely to constantly trouble him or interfere unduly in policy matters. Gandhi always addresses Singh respectfully as 'Sir' while he, like the rest of the Congress, addresses her as 'Madam'.

Also, Gandhi is unlikely to breathe down Singh's neck the way Thackeray harassed Joshi, if only for the reason that Singh is reputed to be fiercely independent and firm about his views.

As former governor of the Reserve Bank of India and former finance minister, he is an experienced administrator and policymaker. And Gandhi is considered too refined a lady, and has too much respect for Singh, to bother him endlessly.

As far as party matters are concerned, she is likely to have the final word, which is something that will suit Singh as well.

Singh's advantage is that he is not associated with any faction within the Congress, which is notorious for internal divisions and backbiting.

He is also arguably seen as the single most honest person in the Congress, perhaps in Indian polity itself.

Even those protesting against Gandhi's decision to resign insisted they were not against Singh, whom they hold in high regard; it was just that they preferred Gandhi.

It is these very qualities that led Gandhi to choose Singh for the post of PM.

The party has members with far more experience -- Pranab Mukherjee and Arjun Singh were ministers in Indira Gandhi's cabinet in the early 1980s; Singh was a bureaucrat then -- but there is little doubt that many Indians, especially the urban middle class, hold him in far higher regard. Others simply pale in comparison.

There are also fears that Gandhi's coterie will not allow Singh a completely free hand in the days to come; it remains to be seen how he manages them.

Another concern, not voiced openly yet, that 10, Janpath will never let Singh to grow larger than life for fear that this might destroy the chances of Rahul Gandhi, who is expected to, sooner or later, become prime minister.

Some 'supporters' of the Gandhi family did raise the demand that Rahul be made PM in lieu of Sonia; a proposal nixed by Rahul himself.

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Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi