3rd. February, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
Indian politics is gearing up for the general elections in the country now just round the corner. India is scheduled to have its next general elections in the middle of 2014 where the two mainstream parties, the Congress now in power with its array of allies whose power base is in the states, and the BJP that too has its allies coming mostly from the states, both with equal chances of forming the next government in New Delhi which is again going to be a coalition government in all likelihood.
In the nearly four years that the Congress has led the government, its performance has not been good enough to make it the automatic choice of the voters in the next elections. In fact, the lack luster leadership of the weak Prime Minister Manmohon Singh has made the Congress vulnerable. In the provincial elections that these days always provide the best hints on which party would capture the government in New Delhi, the performance of the Congress has been depressing. In fact, in the so-called Hindi heartland, that has always been considered as the bastion of the support of the Congress, the fortunes of the party has declined. In March last year, the Congress managed to win only 28 of 403 seats in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state.
These factors have compelled the Congress to do something out of the ordinary to catch the attention of the nation with the 2014 national elections in perspective. In the Jaipur conclave of the AICC, Rahul Gandhi was made the Vice President of the Congress that will make his the second in the party after his mother Sonia Gandhi, the President of the party. Ever since he entered politics 9 years ago, Rahul Gandhi has been looked upon as the future leader of the Congress, a future Prime Minister for sure if the Congress were to win the elections. At 42, he is still young and now perhaps the right age to take charge of the party to usher an era that could see Indian political leadership passing on to a generation with lesser connections to the events of partition of 1947 and the politics of conflict thereafter that has stunted India’s potentials as well as South Asia’s in emerging to their respective potentials.
The way Indian political history has emerged after 1947, it is now more or less an accepted fact that it is destiny that determines that a decedent of the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, one of India’s greatest political leaders, would be gravitated towards becoming a Prime Minister of India. When Nehru died in 1962, there was an array of leaders in the Congress who would have made a worthy successor of the great Prime Minister. Lal Bahadur Sastri succeeded him but died in office after the Indo-Pak war of 1965 in January, 1966.
By then under the Kamraj Plan, senior Congress leader had left the government to strengthen the party that opened the opportunity for the emergence of Indira Gandhi. When Jawaharlal Nehru was alive, she acted as his Personal Secretary, and had a firsthand grasp of Indian politics but only as her father’s aide. She was the Minister of Information in the cabinet of Lal Bahadur Sastri and was also elected to the Rajya Sabha after her father’s death. Thus when Lal Bahadur Sastri died suddenly, the reigns of official power fell upon her as if fate had intervened. So unprepared was she to assume the post of Prime Minister that a friend of her, Pulpul Jayakar, wrote that before she went o assume the office of Prime Minister, she had met her and found her trembling at the idea of becoming India’s Prime Minister!
Her son Rajiv Gandhi was an equally unlikely candidate for succeeding her mother as India’s Prime Minister. In fact, it was his younger brother Sanjay Gandhi who had been chosen by Indira Gandhi to be the heir of the Nehru/Gandhi mantle in Indian politics till his unfortunate death in an aircraft mishap in 1983. A reluctant Rajiv Gandhi was inducted into the politics of the Congress party but only when fate intervened. Fate again intervened to make him the Prime Minister in 1984 when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. In fact, Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress to a massive electoral victory, one of the biggest in the country’s history.
Rajiv Gandhi tenure started as a breath of fresh air for India’s neighbours. As a Counsellor in the Bangladesh High Commission, I remember how encouraged we were with his initial expressions of good intent towards Bangladesh. We thought that our impossible task of getting a deal from the Indians on sharing the water of the Ganges was over for Rajiv Gandhi had made positive statements in that context on a number of occasions upon becoming the Prime Minister. In fact, our High Commissioner seriously contemplated sending a secret communication to the President that we could see a Ganges water sharing accord soon. However, on second thought, the High Commissioner sent our officer in the High Commission dealing with the water issues to the Joint Rivers Commission office in New Delhi. There he was told in no uncertain terms that Rajiv Gandhi’s intentions notwithstanding, JRC’s position “is what it was yesterday and will be the same tomorrow” which was no prospect of a deal on the sharing of the Ganges water. We at the High Commission were given another lesson in the powers of the Indian bureaucracy.
Nevertheless, Rajiv Gandhi during his tenure had shown a great deal of good intent like for instance his visit to Urir Char after the cyclonic storm there, a decision that he took in genuine concern of the misfortune that befell to the people who were the victims of the disaster. His son’s induction to politics has been a little different. He and the party that included his mother Sonia Gandhi took their time, in fact nine years, to make him the Vice President after spending quite a few years as one of the 15 General Secretaries of the Party. He gave up the option of becoming a Minister in the Manmohon Singh cabinet to gain experience in the party. Today, at 42 , he has politically built up the right base to lead the Congress to which his connection to the Nehru/Gandhi names will only provide added aura and credentials.
Rahul Gandhi will bring qualitative changes in Indian politics now that he is the most important leader of the Congress and if Congress wins the next elections, he will become the Prime Minister. He will also expectedly bring good news and results for Indian neighbours such as Bangladesh. Not too long ago, his strong statement against linkages of rivers and dams should encourage Bangladesh. Bangladesh should also welcome his emergence because it would need a strong Prime Minister with a commanding base in the party and acceptability in the country to carry home all the good work that were done in Bangladesh-India negotiations over the last for years that were not delivered because of a weak central government and a weaker Prime Minister.
Bangladesh also would need to wish Rahul Gandhi well because if he does not become the next Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, the arch proponent of Hindutva, could become the next Prime Minister of India. The prospect of a Bangladesh government dealing with Narendra Modi as the next Prime Minister is too nightmarish to even contemplate.
The writer is a retired Ambassador and the chairman, centre for foreign affairs studies (CFAS)