Rasheeda Bhagat

Chennai: The unmistakable signal that the season for soft speak and gentleman-like electioneering is over was given by the two men angling for the prime minister’s job — incumbent Dr Manmohan Singh and aspirant Mr L. K. Advani. The words were strong, and the only difference was the pitch.

Addressing an election rally in Mathura, an animated Mr Advani reiterated his attacks on the “weakest prime minister India has ever seen,” and once again accused him of taking orders from the Congress President, Ms Sonia Gandhi, to run the government. He added that 7 Race Course, the address of the Prime Minister, no longer mattered, as it has been superseded by 10 Janpath (home of Ms Sonia Gandhi).

The Prime Minister had a scathing reply and a number of sticks to beat Mr Advani with. But the tone was measured, though not the words.

Punches galore

Landing a series of strong punches on the Opposition leader, Dr Singh reminded Mr Advani that during his tenure as the Home Minister, Parliament House was attacked and an Indian Airlines flight hijacked to Kandahar in Afghanistan and “terrorists rewarded”. The Gujarat riots of 2002 had also occurred during his stewardship of the Home Ministry. Another ‘dis-credit’ was the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Gloves off during the launch of the Congress manifesto, and perhaps also emboldened by the Congress taking the unusual step of categorically naming its prime ministerial candidate before the polls, Dr Singh called Mr Advani an “opportunist” who had suddenly discovered the “secular” credentials of the Pakistani leader M. A. Jinnah during a visit to Karachi.

The Gentle Doctor’s parting shot that also revealed a new facet to his personality, was that it was “shameful” that the BJP was endorsing “young Varun Gandhi’s” vicious comments against the Muslim community.

Young India; old leaders

This may be a new face of Dr Singh the nation is seeing, but the sparring between the two leaders, both past 75, once again emphasised the irony of both the national parties of a young and resurgent India — 50 per cent of Indians are below 25 — being able to field only senior citizens for the prime minister’s job. To the obvious question about Mr Rahul Gandhi being ready for the top post, raised by a journalist at the manifesto-release, Ms Sonia Gandhi responded by blocking her picture on the manifesto booklet and holding it up such that only Dr Singh’s face could be seen.

He was the best man in the country qualified for the job, she said. But she did indicate that Mr Rahul Gandhi might be given a meatier job in the next government if the UPA returns to power; he is now a party general secretary.

There is growing speculation in political circles that if the Congress does manage to form the next government, Dr Singh will indeed be made prime minister, but only for a while.

After a year of two, he might bow out, on health or other grounds, and the young Gandhi could step in.

‘Wait-and-see’ on Rahul

This way, even if the UPA does not return to power, the onus for its defeat will not be on Mr Rahul Gandhi. If it wins, Mr Rahul Gandhi might first get a Cabinet berth; Ms Sonia Gandhi indicated as much when she said in answer to a query if her son would be given a more important role in the next government when she said: “Wait and see.” Later, he can always be elevated to the prime minister’s chair, inheriting the mantle without putting his neck on the line during the rough and tumble of an Indian election. Of course, the dynasty-smitten party leaders will not raise a squeak of protest and the allies can have no say if the Congress is the largest party in the coalition.

But there are too many ifs and buts to Mr Rahul Gandhi taking the top job, 20 years after his father stepped down. At the moment the unfolding electoral drama is so fluid and confusing that nobody has a clue which side the scale will tilt.

And, returning to the war of words, while Dr Singh has rained many a blow on the former Home Minister, the present occupant of the office has done well in rebutting the Gujarat Chief Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, terming the shifting of IPL overseas a “national shame”.

Said Mr P. Chidambaram: “Most people in India think the Gujarat communal riots of 2002 were a national shame.”

Touche! Remember the adage on stones and glass houses?

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 26, 2009)
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