When Shekhar Gupta writes two Op-eds on the drift in the UPA it’s a signal of sorts. Before we get too carried away let us be clear this is not a “Dileep Padgaonkar” moment (for those who were not old enough, Dileep Padgaonkar who was once TOI’s chief editor, famously claimed it was the second most important job in the country).
The reason this is a signal is because of the extent to which the Shekha Gupta editorial bureau in the Indian Express had been invested in the Manmohan Singh PMO until recently. So when Shekhar Gupta starts to describe the UPA 2.0 as lameduck it is a sign of diminishing future returns from that investment.
Now conventional wisdom would have us believe that this maybe about an imminent succession to the heir apparent. But then Shekhar Gupta is not exactly betting on a heir apparent lead PMO. In fact Shekhar Gupta is not hedging his bets on any of the known suspects taking over the PMO while being quite forthright in describing the incumbent as lame duck.
This begs the question – what does he know that the rest of us don’t ?
Perhaps it’s that the heir apparent doesn’t exactly want to hold public office ?
The drift in the Congress is better explained if we were to go with the working hypothesis that Rahul Gandhi does not want to become Prime Minister. The public jostling between Digvijay Singh and P. Chidambaram and the running down of Kapil Sibal by lightweight Members of Parliament is indicative of the high stakes game that’s underway, positioning for a post Manmohan Singh scenario.
But then who says Sonia Gandhi is about to replace a non-politician with a career politician ?
Sonia Gandhi’s ascent to the longest Presidency has been marked by an emasculation of career politicians. Narasimha Rao has all but been erased from public memory. Sitaram Kesri had no idea what hit him before e faded into the oblivion. Arjun Singh paid a steep price to retain some semblance of self-respect. While destiny took care of potential challengers the rebels like Pawar have long been cut to size.
The only career politicians in the Congress with a future are those who have completely submitted themselves to the basic Nehru Gandhi Contract. We are already witnessing in Andhra what happens when the Nehru-Gandhi contracts is subordinated by a regional satrap.
So as much as Chidambaram, Digvijay Singh and Kapil Sibal maybe positioning themselves for a post Manmohan scenario it is highly unlikely the Nehru-Gandhi contract will be subordinated in favor of a career politician.
What about the Minority/Dalit card ?
This trial balloon has been floated before. The Congress is acutely aware that it needs to play both the vote banks subtly to be in power. It will dole out symbolic posts but won’t go beyond that.
Which brings us to the question of what kind of non-politician serves Nehru-Gandhi interests best ?
It can’t be NGO-activists of the NAC mould. They have their uses outside the business of government. But more importantly the Nehru-Gandhis need the aura of benevolence almost exclusively to themselves. Their brand of messianic politics depends on that exclusivity.
Hence the man running the business of government must be a technocrat in the Manmohan Singh mould to appeal to the Middle Class while not diluting the Nehru-Gandhi brand in the eyes of the BPL class.
Which brings us to the question of which Technocrat might that be ?
Of all the technocrat lateral entrants to the Congress extended family, Nandan Nilekani has been the most low profile, keeping above controversies while maintaining a laser focus on his job. As a successful author with a reformist mindset and a wealth creator he is a middle class role model in the Manmohan Singh mould. He also is a unique position bridging Rahul Gandhi’s 2 India’s though the UID project.
If one were to hedge bets on the most likely non-politician to succeed Manmohan Singh it would be Nandan Nilekani - a choice with the potential to blow the wind of the sails of the Opposition. This is not to say the choice is not without it’s risks. As a Corporate product a Nilekani’ ability to manage political contradictions will be far more limited than a Manmohan Singh. But then the Nehru-Gandhi brand has demonstrated tremendous resilience in weathering political failings.
So if indeed Rahul Gandhi opts out of public office and a technocrat is sprung up, what does it mean to the BJP ?
The BJP’s or a 3rd front’s odds of electoral success in a Lok Sabha election largely rest on monumental bungling by the Congress. To date, despite all the political setbacks, the credibility of the Nehru Gandhi remains unaffected. For the current electoral trend in favor of the Congress to reverse, a necessary precondition is an issue on which the Nehru-Gandhis are held personally responsible causing irreversible damage to their credibility.
It would be a foolish strategy on the part of the BJP to hitch it’s fortunes on the likelihood of that happening. By staying out of office the Nehru-Gandhis have bought sufficient insurance.
In the absence of such monumental bungling and if challenged by a non-politician technocrat, the BJP will face a steep challenge in finding it’s path back to power with most of it’s current leadership weighed down by political baggage of one kind or the other.
In the absence of a new grassroots movement that effects a fundamental shift in the political landscape, the imperatives of this Nehru-Gandhi strategic calculus demand that the BJP start looking for a fresh face without any political baggage preferably outside it’s fold to be viable in 2019 if not in 2014.