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l June 2004 l

The Kashmir Bachao Andolan Publication

l Vol 4, No 2 l

S P O T L I G H T

Sonia Gandhi: The de facto Prime Minister?

Siddharth Srivastava


She may not be the de jure prime minister of India, but as dynamics within the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) unveils itself there is no doubt that Sonia Gandhi is the de facto ruler of the country.

It was earlier predicted that Sonia would limit herself to playing political mentor to new premier Manmohan Singh as it is no easy task heading a coalition of parties owing allegiance to regional satraps and often opposed (like the Left) to the Congress at the local levels. It was thought that issues of governance and administration would be Singh’s fiefdom, while Sonia as chairman of UPA would handle aspects of strengthening the Congress party organisation and alliances. But, as things unfold in the new government it is apparent that Sonia’s ``inner voice’’ might have stopped her from donning the mantle of premiere of the country, it has not prevented her from ensuring that all power in the current administration rests with her.

In the latest move Sonia heads a 20-member National Advisory Council (NAC) that will oversee the implementation of the common minimum programme charted out by the coalition partners in the new government. The post bestows Sonia with a cabinet status and the council has been entrusted with a full-fledged secretariat that will be housed in a prime government building. More importantly, Sonia will now be empowered to deal directly with ministries and the bureaucracy hauling them when necessary. Indeed, the whispers in official circles already speak of vacancies in the NAC and not the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) as the most plum postings to vie for. It may be recalled that in the earlier dispensation the PMO under former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee exercised exclusive control over issues close to Vajpayee, including foreign policy that was driven by trusted principal secretary Brajesh Mishra, much to the chagrin of the foreign ministry. It is not yet clear which subjects are likely to be chosen by Sonia, but letters and phone calls are sure to flow from the NAC directly to ministries. Reports suggest that the intelligence bureau chief has already had a one-to-one meeting with Sonia at her residence.

The formation of the NAC follows the near-total stamp of Sonia in the new ministerial and bureaucratic set-up. Old Congress hands who owe their existence in politics to their loyalty and patronage of the Gandhi family have been handed the important and powerful ministries --- defense minister Pranab Mukherjee, home minister Shivraj Patil, HRD minister Arjun Singh, foreign minister Natwar Singh are old Gandhi loyalists. It is noteworthy that in a recent statement Natwar said that Sonia is likely to visit Pakistan soon to further relations between the two countries. There was no mention of Manmohan. Indeed, these senior ministers consider themselves to be more competent and experienced than the prime minister and make no bones about their views in private and have an audience in Sonia. Mukherjee had at one time appointed Manmohan as governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

The bureaucratic appointments so far too bear the Sonia leitmotif – national security advisor J N Dixit has worked closely with Sonia as well as her late husband Rajiv Gandhi; M K Narayanayan who has been appointed special advisor to the PMO was intelligence chief under Rajiv; Pulak Chatterjee appointed to the PMO was earlier Sonia’s private secretary when she was leader of opposition; B L Joshi, a former police officer, who has been appointed lieutenant governor of Delhi is known for his proximity to the Gandhi family.

The question is, how do all of these augur for the future of the new government. It is not an enviable position that Manmohan finds himself. If he asserts himself, he risks rubbing those who may launch a whisper campaign against him feeding Sonia and others with stories that suit their interests. It has happened in the past with establishments across the world and there is no reason why it cannot happen again. If Manmohan lets things be, he faces the brunt of opinion such as the one recently in Economic Times: ``you need to signal that you are in charge and cannot be trifled be. At some point you will have to crack the whip and force people to fall in line. You cannot be seen as somebody who keeps giving in to allies because you have only 145 seats in Parliament. Not can you afford to keep running to Sonia for support. You must be seen as your own man. Choose your ground, and then strike out. The sooner you do it, the better.’’

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) too is sniffing a rat in the whole exercise. The BJP has been hard-pressed to come up with legitimate issues to attack the government. Its tirade against Sonia’s foreign origin fell flat when she refused to be prime minister. The new leader of opposition L K Advani then launched an attack on the composition of ministry with several ministers belonging to key Congress ally from Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, having been charge sheeted in courts on criminal charges. This argument too did not hold much water as several ministers of the erstwhile government, including then deputy prime minister Advani and defense minister George Fernandes faced charges in court on the destruction of the Babri mosque and the Tehelka corruption scandal respectively. Latest reports suggest that the BJP, finding it difficult to attack the squeaky clean image of Manmohan, is preparing to take on the current dispensation around a campaign pegged as ``bechara (helpless) Manmohan’’ caught between a powerful party president and coalition allies. The line of offense will then likely be trained at Sonia whom the BJP sees as a greater threat to its own electoral prospects.

Indeed, an overbearing Sonia and a pliant Manmohan is not the best of circumstances that the new government should engender. Perhaps, in time Sonia will have to dip into her ``inner voice’’ once again and hear the words that power has to come with responsibility. She cannot fire without facing the bullets. It is not healthy for democracy. Either she should step-in or keep out.
  

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