Note to Caesar: Mark this Antony

Note to Caesar: Mark this Antony

By M.J. Akbar | 7 August, 2011
Rahul Gandhi (Left) & A.K. Antony (Right)

Unqualified, unmitigated congratulations to All India Radio. The government's official broadcaster was not fooled by a mere communiqué from the All India Congress Committee, even when it was personally read out by the prevailing all-purpose party official, Janardan Dwivedi. Dwivedi put A.K. Antony at the top of the pecking order in the Group of Four authorised to oversee Congress affairs in the unfortunate absence of Mrs Sonia Gandhi, with Rahul Gandhi trailing at either number two or three, depending on whose version you consulted. [It is in tune with his character that the man at the bottom of the list, Ahmad Patel, is going to do most of the heavy lifting in this quartet.] AIR would have none of this nonsense. It insisted in all its bulletins on giving Rahul Gandhi top billing. AIR is right.

Antony, for all his virtues, of which unblinking loyalty is the most important, is not the nominated heir to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Rahul Gandhi is. If there is uncertainty, it is about when, not whether. A persistent feeling that Rahul may not be quite ready for his inheritance has become father of a thousand theories, particularly with great churn expected in the 2012 political season. His most fervent admirers believe that doubt will disappear if Congress does well in the 2012 UP Assembly elections, which begs the question: what is the definition of "well"? Be that as it may, there is a clear message in the list. If there is going to be an interim role in the transition process, then that role will be played by Antony, and neither by the very capable Pranab Mukherjee nor the ever-aspiring P. Chidambaram. Some very cold water has been poured on vaulting ambition.

If there is going to be an interim role in the transition process, then that role will be played by A.K. Antony, and neither by the very capable Pranab Mukherjee nor the ever-aspiring (P. Chidambaram)

We may have also had our first hint as to who the Congress candidate for Rashtrapati Bhavan could be next year. 2011 has been a year of wasted reputations. Mrs Sheila Dikshit, who would have made a perfect President, has been sullied by the CAG report on the Commonwealth Games; and the waters are rising even around the PMO. But Antony's image remains as white as his traditional Kerala sarong. Nor does he suffer from the trust deficit that afflicts Pranab Mukherjee whenever promotion is mentioned; of course Mukherjee is fully trusted whenever there is any hard work to be done.

2012 is utterly crucial to Congress fortunes, which have slipped into the netherworld this year. It is its last chance for recovery. Congress is fortunate none of its allies can gain from destabilisation of the government, for an immediate election would decimate Congress. But recovery requires, above all, clarity about leadership and direction. Mrs Sonia Gandhi's sudden illness can become the political opportunity for a two-step progress for Rahul Gandhi, first as working president of the Congress, and then into Dr Manmohan Singh's chair. The Prime Minister, it should be noted, has been sending regular invitations to his heir, so a switch should be no problem. This would give Rahul Gandhi two years to display, and the country to understand, his capabilities. He has so far kept a deliberate distance from power, but that is a cop out.

Dropcap OnA group is never formed as a solution to a problem. It is only a bridge till a solution is found. The worst possible course for Congress would be to drift along with a committee; a group can become a "gang" very quickly in party and public discourse. Mrs Sonia Gandhi is aware that the challenges before the party will only increase by the time she returns. The Supreme Court has opened a deadly Pandora's Box, which the establishment had carefully sealed through manipulation. The Court has ordered police to act in the cash-for-votes scam which saved the government during the nuclear deal vote in 2008. There is no knowing where that action could take a so-far dormant police. There are fires still alive in that box which could burn anyone in government, and there is limited equipment left with the Congress fire brigade. If too many faces are charred, the Congress will need a new face. If Rahul remains unready, that could be Antony. But it would be far wiser to put your bets on Rahul Gandhi.

The good news from such unprecedented turbulence is that democratic institutions like CAG, and its admirable leader, Vinod Rai, have brought the political class to heel. Those who laugh at Indian corruption should also spare more than a moment to admire Indian democracy. India is not a dictatorship like China which uses censors to kill reporting of state culpability in a train accident at Wenshou, and then rigs the investigating panel by placing the number two in the railway ministry on it. The accused is not the judge in India; the nation is larger than its government.


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