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Trust deficit affecting Sonia-Manmohan equation?

The Bansal-Ashwani row seems to have changed the equation between Gandhi and Singh

Shantanu Bhattacharji  |  New Delhi 

Shantanu Bhattacharji

Speculation is rife that all is not well between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Political pundits are candid enough to say that there cannot be smoke without fire. On May 12, the Congress vehemently denied that Gandhi had forced the Prime Minister to sack railway minister Pawan Bansal and law minister Ashwani Kumar, saying it was a joint decision. However, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) remained silent on the entire controversy despite serious questions being raised about the erosion of Singh's authority to decide even his own team.

There is a school of thought that says that they don't hold diametrically opposite opinions on policy matters, however. They say she has stood like a rock behind Singh all through. Is there any undercurrent of political one-upmanship? Has Gandhi usurped the Prime Minister's right to form his cabinet? Is the party targeting ministers close to Manmohan Singh to isolate him? To play it safe, one must say there can’t be one single answer to these questions.

Chance and circumstances played a pivotal part in bringing Singh and Gandhi into the Indian political consciousness. In 1991, when Singh became the finance minister in Narasimha Rao's government, India was on the brink of bankruptcy. Its fiscal deficit was close to 8.5% of the gross domestic product; the balance of payments deficit was huge. Singh was the man who ushered in reforms that liberalised India's economy, changing the fundamental way of doing business and with it the lives of millions of middle class Indians. Gandhi had carried out the impossible task of turning the faction-ridden Congress into a cohesive and disciplined party. She showed imagination in pushing the Congress to accept coalition politics and pitted secularism as a unifying ideological plank against the Bharatiya Janata Party. Singh is committed to ensuring that India Inc sails, not in choppy waters but with speed. In Sonia’s scheme of things, the poor and vulnerable should not become victims of the hubris of the rich.

Of late, the unique Gandhi-Singh working arrangement seems to have developed some cracks. Congress loyalists argue that a difference of on a certain subject did not mean a breakdown in relationship and that the idea of changing the Prime Minister hadn't ever flitted through Gandhi's mind. Gandhi wanted passage of the National Food Security Bill and the Land Acquisition Bill in this Budget session. She met opposition leader Sushma Swaraj to discuss how to end the Parliament logjam. The bills could change the game in favour of the Congress in 2014. Experts believe that the bills will do for the Congress in 2014 what the NREGA and loan waiver schemes did in the last two polls.

On Friday, Gandhi called a meeting at Jawahar Bhawan around noon to discuss the need for a reshuffle without Singh being present — a first. For the past nine years, she had left it to the Prime Minister to select his own team in spite of her reservations about some, reports The New Indian Express.

Here’s a list of Gandhi-Singh divide on crucial issues


. Food Security Bill

This is Gandhi’s pet project, from which she hopes to reap rich electoral dividends in 2014 elections. The Prime Minister, however, has not opposed it, but is said to have reservations about it because of the financial burden it will put on the exchequer. If implemented, the scheme will considerably raise the government’s food subsidy burden. The UPA allies feel it will push up food subsidy by at least Rs 35,000 crore. Besides, the government will have to arrange for 63 million tonnes of food grain.

. RTI amendments

The government proposed certain alteration to the RTI Act that might have ended up diluting the law. Gandhi wrote several letters to the PM supporting NGOs that are opposed to proposed amendments. The PM was of the view that the transparency law was affecting decision making process in the government. He came in for scathing criticism for this from members of Gandhi-led National Advisory Council.


. Approach to growth

Gandhi and Singh are clearly not on the same page as far as the approach to development is concerned. Singh is all for quick industrial development and contends that it can't be mortgaged to environment or other considerations. The PM is for speedy green clearances for industrial projects. His argument is: "We can't protect the environment of this country by perpetuating poverty." Gandhi, on the other hand, agrees factories have to be set up, but says it can't be at farmers' cost. She is opposed to agricultural land being acquired and says loss of fertile land will damage food security.

. Retail FDI

When the PM announced the decision to open up the retail sector to overseas investors last November, the UPA allies attempted to scuttle the move and there was unrest even within the Congress. However, Gandhi remained reticent, triggering speculations of a conflict between the government and the party on the issue. The Congress boss was worried about the plan's political fallout but at the same time did not want to be seen as jeopardising the endeavours.

First Published: Mon, May 13 2013. 17:50 IST