The passing of a generation: Manmohan Singh's time as Indian Prime Minister is nearly up

Rahul Gandhi is running India from the sidelines
  • @AndrewBuncombe

If Manmohan Singh looked nothing less than exhausted as he addressed the media on his official flight home from the US it was hardly surprising.

His five-day visit, designed to cement closer relations between Delhi and Washington and to enable him to make progress in talks with Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, had turned out to be a damp squib.

The damage had been done not so much by his unremarkable meeting with Barack Obama, or by his encounter with Mr Sharif being undermined by a militant attack in Kashmir and a controversy about whether or not his Pakistani counterpart had called him a “village hag”. (He had not, apparently.)

Rather, the 81-year-old had been grievously damaged by an outburst back in India by no-one less than Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the man who could succeed Mr Singh as Prime Minister.

Last Friday afternoon, before Mr Singh had even woken up in Washington, Mr Gandhi walked into a Delhi press conference that had been organised by his Congress party. Among other items discussed was a controversial piece of legislation the government was seeking to introduce by the back door that would allow convicted politicians to retain their place in parliament.

Asked about this so-called ordinance, Mr Gandhi responded: “This is complete nonsense and it should be torn up and thrown out. It is my personal opinion...All parties do this because of political considerations and we must stop making compromises.”

In an instant, sycophantic senior Congress ministers found themselves in the unenviable position of having to now back Mr Gandhi’s statement, having moments earlier defended the ordinance the 43-year-old had so vigorously denounced. Mr Singh, still waking up, let it be known that he would deal with the matter when he returned to Delhi.

On his flight back, during the traditional meeting with the media, he claimed such outbursts were part of the round of political life. But he said he would find out why Mr Gandhi had raised the matter in the manner that he had.

“I am not the master of what people say,” he said, looking tired. “It has happened and, as I said, when I go back I will try to find out the reasons why it had to be done that way and how to handle it.”

Mr Singh has now arrived back in the capital and the tree-lined streets of Lutyens’ Delhi were on Wednesday busy with a series of official motorcades making their way around town.

Firstly, Rahul Gandhi paid a visit to Manmohan Singh’s official residence at Race Course Road where he reportedly expressed his regret for the language and timing (but not the content) of his comment. Secondly, Mr Singh travelled to see President Pranab Mukherjee, the man who would have to sign the ordinance into law. (He had always been reluctant to do so.)

The cabinet met later on Wednesday and it was reported that the government had asked for the ordinance, which had previously been agreed upon by the cabinet, to be withdrawn. Rahul Gandhi got his way.

The “nonsense” outburst has transfixed political observers in Delhi, highlighting as it has the dangerous fault-line between the official seat of power in the government (Manmohan Singh) and the seat of genuine political power (Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul). Many have argued that this disconnect has repeatedly damaged Mr Singh’s second term as prime minister and his ability to get things done.

It has also thrown up questions about what Mr Gandhi’s real intentions may have been. Was he trying to set himself apart from the Congress for tactical reasons ahead of the upcoming election. And what about the relationship between Rahul and his mother; did she approve of his outburst?

Yet what it also did, perhaps more than anything else, was signify the effective end of Mr Singh’s premiership, the passing of a generation. Many have suggested he should have resigned in the aftermath of Mr Gandhi’s comments in order preserve the dignity of the office.

But that is by the by. An election is due to be held by next May. The charismatic Narendra Modi, of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, is already racing his way around the country and holding rallies as he seeks to dislodge the Congress from power.

A way to draw a line under this matter would be for the Congress to now meet the challenges it faces and announce a date for that election.

Mr Gandhi should finally either announce that he wants to be the Prime Minister and will be the party’s official candidate, or else stop trying to run things from the sidelines. Power without responsibility does not befit the world’s largest democracy.

And Mr Singh could at least have a rest.