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Reforming diarchy

Rahul Gandhi must alter system his mother and PM worked out

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

The Congress' vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, has long been suspected of an unwillingness to shoulder the burden of the post of prime minister. In a discussion on Tuesday with reporters and members of Parliament, he appeared to confirm this, by saying that he had no ambition to be prime minister, and instead emphasising his desire to strengthen the Congress' decision-making and democratising process. Mr Gandhi cannot be faulted for his desire to do that; it is also entirely his decision whether he puts himself forward as a prime ministerial candidate or not. However, his reticence, a mirror of his mother's famous "renunciation" of the prime minister's post in 2004, might have serious consequences if the Congress were to win a general election under Mr Gandhi's leadership at some point in the future - for, whether or not he wishes to be prime minister, he is certainly not abdicating from his pre-eminent position within the Congress party.

When Ms Gandhi installed Manmohan Singh as prime minister in 2004 while retaining control of the party, some inherent tensions to the agreement became clear. Not all those around Ms Gandhi were in total agreement with Dr Singh's vision for India's future and how to get there. Whatever the exact nature of the co-ordination on policy principles between Dr Singh and Ms Gandhi, it is clear that the system of dual authority has contributed to the divisions within the Union Cabinet, and its inability to pull together to ensure India's economic recovery. This "diarchy" has delivered stable government for almost a decade, but it has come at a cost. India is, in any case, not an easy country to reform. When constituencies and individuals against some reform feel that they can appeal against the prime minister's authority to another and higher court, then the process of change becomes even slower and more difficult. Does Mr Gandhi believe that he can replicate the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh arrangement with someone else in Dr Singh's place while he takes his mother's place as principal vote catcher? If so, it is clear that treating the prime minister as merely a chief operating officer of the government, with limited powers to set the agenda or to even pick his own Cabinet, has major failures.

Mr Gandhi's candour does him some credit, but it is probably not in the best interest of his party or of the country. He essentially has two options before him. First, he could accept the authority that his party apparently wishes to bestow on him; take solid and defensible stands on policy and on reform; and declare himself to be the prime ministerial candidate for Congress for the foreseeable future. Or, perhaps, if he wishes to stick with aspects of the diarchy that Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh developed, he needs to modify it to work better. The prime minister should have independent authority; members of his Cabinet from the ruling party should be dealt with sternly if they appear to undermine that authority; and the party leadership should frequently and publicly commit its support to both the government's broad policy direction and the specific details of government legislation. Unless one of these choices is made, Mr Gandhi's apparent unwillingness to be prime minister could condemn one of India's major parties to being perpetually in a state of indecision and paralysis.

First Published: Wed, March 06 2013. 21:32 IST