Adviser’s attack on Congress shows party tensions

September 21, 2010

Appearing to signal dissent in the ranks of India’s ruling Congress party, the Prime Minister’s media adviser told reporters last night that the “status-quoist” party was only concerned with winning elections.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (C), Chief of India's ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi (R) and India's Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel (L) attend the inauguration ceremony of the newly constructed Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi July 3, 2010 REUTERS/B Mathur“The Congress is by nature a status-quoist, pragmatic party,” Harish Khare, media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was reported by the Hindustan Times as saying on Tuesday.

“It does not believe in any conviction. (Its) only conviction is to win elections,” the Indian Express added.

The implications of Khare’s remarks are complicated. As the PM’s spokesperson, he’s distanced from the political powerhouse of Sonia Gandhi, the real puller of Congress party strings but privy to the opinions of ruling policymakers.

Indeed, one argument says there’s nothing inherently scandalous in his words. Winning elections is the raison d’etre of political parties and “status-quoist, pragmatic” – perhaps not the exact words party chiefs would use – aligns with the party’s goal of poverty alleviation and social development.

Yet it will surely add to the ripples of discontent that appear to be spreading through the party. A few weeks ago, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, regarded as a prime-minister-in-waiting, appeared to criticise Singh for his approach to land ownership reforms, and forced him to ensure the party would work toward greater rights for India’s farmers.

Congress, the largest party in India’s parliament and the head of a ruling alliance with some local and state parties, is effectively run by Gandhi. Former finance minister and technocrat Singh was appointed prime minister after she led the party to election success in 2004 and is only involved in government business. The need to appease key coalition partners such as Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Conference has stalled crucial reforms, and crippled the ability of the party to utilise its second consecutive term in power — so far.

Prof  Sudha Pai, whose book launch was the venue for Khare’s remarks, told Reuters that the comments were not off-the-cuff. “Congress has become a very divided party, with lots of different voices,” she said.

Spokespersons for leaders across the globe have let a little too much opinion cloud the party line before, and the resulting roll-backs inevitably succeed in smothering any adverse fallout.

But with a cabinet shake-up slated for the next parliament session, and the whispers in the media surrounding Rahul’s accession continuing undiminished, Khare has certainly offered us a glimpse of internal Congress party feeling.

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A truly inept bunch of people.

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