Congress’ 2007 leadership whispers underscore 2011 election dangers

April 4, 2011

Rumblings within the ruling Congress party that suggested the “jettison” of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after the party’s electoral failures in state elections in 2007, cited in a secret diplomatic cable published on Monday, are a timely reminder of the dangerous implications of failure for Congress in elections this month.

India's ruling Congress party president Sonia Gandhi watched by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (L) fills nomination papers seeking to retain her post as the party chief at her residence in New Delhi September 2, 2010. REUTERS/B Mathur

The electorates of Assam, Kerala, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal will go the polls this month to elect new state legislatures, in the first tests of public confidence in India’s ruling party that has been implicated in a string of multi-billion-dollar corruption scandals over the past nine months.

Singh, a 78-year-old technocrat and economic reformist, had his leadership questioned by senior aides to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who mooted a more politically sellable replacement following electoral defeats in Punjab and Uttarakhand, detailed a U.S. state department cable accessed by WikiLeaks and published by The Hindu newspaper.

The Prime Minister, who has seen his previously impeccable reputation tarnished by a number of government scams committed on his watch over the past nine months, may find himself under similar pressure from the party’s “old guard” — the socialist bloc more closely aligned with the party’s left-leaning past — should Congress stumble in the upcoming elections.

“Following a string of recent local-level electoral defeats in Mumbai, Uttarakhand, and Punjab, Sonia Gandhi and her personal advisors are very concerned that the impending Uttar Pradesh elections will turn out horribly for Congress. As a result, some are advocating that she jettison Prime Minister Singh… and put a more saleable political face at the head of the government,” wrote the U.S. embassy’s Charge D’Affaires Geoffrey Pyatt in the secret cable.

“What seems clear in the aftermath of recent polls is that the reform cadre of Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and Finance Minister Chidambaram are politically diminished, Sonia Gandhi’s inner coterie is deeply worried, and the old line Congress and their Communist fellow-travelers are empowered.”

However, Congress did indeed suffer in Uttar Pradesh and Singh kept his job, appearing to suggest that either the conspirators lacked the clout to seriously challenge the prime minister’s position, or that the lack of a possible replacement — an issue that continues today — poured cold water on any possible coup.

Singh is heralded as the godfather of India’s economic boom, having pushed through a series of groundbreaking reforms during his tenure as Finance Minister in the 1990s, that opened up India to overseas investment and ended the growth-stifling Licence Raj.

Gandhi, who wields ultimate power over the party after turning down the position of Prime Minister in 2004, typically stays above day-to-day government and party functioning, but is the heartbeat of Congress’ electoral machine. Singh may have become in 2009 the first Indian prime minister to win an election after a full five-year term since Jawaharlal Nehru, but he didn’t even contest a ticket due to his appointed seat in the upper house of parliament, and the media-savvy Gandhi was the beaming face of the campaign.

The party president, who has appeared to clash with reformists in her party over populist initiatives such as a proposed food security law, has publicly backed Singh on multiple occasions during the recent spate of corruption allegations against his government, including to her party faithful at a recently-held conclave.

But should Congress perform badly in this month’s elections, as opposition parties ramp up the corruption charges, her inner coterie may again question the electoral abilities of their academic and softly-spoken prime minister.

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