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Cong wants PM out by mid-2012
SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT  New Delhi | 20th Nov 2011

Policemen stand guard on the roof of a house next to a giant cutout of Rahul Gandhi at the venue of a campaign rally to be addressed by him on the outskirts of Allahabad on Monday. REUTERS

he Congress is preparing to replace Dr Manmohan Singh with Rahul Gandhi by the middle of next year. Party leaders and spokesmen are obviously reluctant to say this on record, but are happy to be quoted on condition of anonymity. They believe that change is their only hope of having any chance of victory in the next Lok Sabha polls. "The PM is the face of the government, and recent scandals have tarnished him beyond return," a senior leader confided, while another added that "we have to show voters that action will be taken against those responsible for doing nothing to reduce high levels of inflation and corruption".

There is also no doubt that the replacement will be Rahul Gandhi. The clutch of names, ranging from Defence Minister A.K. Antony to Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar as prospective replacements, is a thin smokescreen. "Rahul is young, and will bring fresh ideas and people into a setup that has become too stale to appeal to a country very young in its composition," said a minister.

Rahul Gandhi has already begun to seed a change to his generation where he can, and not just in the ranks of the Youth Congress. Kiran Reddy was his candidate for leadership of Andhra Pradesh. It is certain that key positions in his Cabinet will go to those in his age group he is comfortable with, even if seniors like Antony and Sushilkumar Shinde have to be accommodated for "balance".

Rahul Gandhi has been spending substantial chunks of time familiarising himself with economic and social issues, getting advised by experts and professionals, especially in the field of economics and technology. He is known to have interacted with leading businesspersons, as well as scientists, administrators and others, but as the price for revealing such meetings is denial of future access to the Heir Apparent, thus far, little news of such meetings has reached the public. What is clear is that Rahul believes — certainly with justification — that there is a lot more to learn about the country, one reason why he has thus far kept out of the Union Cabinet. According to intimates, another reason is his dislike of working under individuals whom he regards as not able to "keep up with the times", i.e. who are too old. Rahul's suite comprises individuals in their 30s, all of whom obey his instructions to remain outside media attention.

Almost by default, Manmohan Singh got a second term in 2009, even though the inside view in 2004 was that the septuagenarian would be good for only one term, the same time limit that was regarded as suitable for Narasimha Rao. However, like his former mentor, Manmohan Singh acquired a taste for the job, and — like Rao — saw a second term as his due.

Even in 2009, most Congress leaders wanted Rahul Gandhi to join the Union Cabinet, thereby gaining experience — and proficiency — in administration. Although the buzz around the AICC is that Sonia Gandhi was opposed to her son getting thrust just yet into the cauldron of ministerial office, those close to the family claim that staying away from office was Rahul's decision. He wanted more time, to move around the country and familiarise himself with the sprawling party machinery that was his by inheritance, and he got his way.

UPA 2 has not been anything like UPA 1. Almost from the first year of the new term, scandals have erupted, beginning with that involving the Commonwealth Games. Others followed in rapid succession, and all of a sudden, the Prime Minister seemed anything other than sure-footed. Unlike the traditional Congress style, where government agencies and even constitutional functionaries obeyed the private instructions relayed to them by retainers of the Congress ruling family, all of a sudden, even the CBI seemed to be less than completely reliable, despite great care being taken in its staffing. By the beginning of this year, thinking had begun to crystallise that "drastic surgery" on the government was needed to "save the Congress party". The Prime Minister has, according to party insiders, been reluctant to chop and prune his team in a comprehensive way. Hence, "too little too late" has been the response within and by the government to the conflagration swirling around the team. Newly-inducted Principal Secretary to the PM Pulok Chatterjee has, it is learnt, spent considerable time briefing the Congress ruling family on the state of affairs in the government, thereby prompting a rethink on issues that were previously kept on hold.

Sources claim that a Rahul Cabinet would be without most of the heavyweights in the Manmohan team, although Kapil Sibal, A.K. Antony, Anand Sharma, Salman Khurshid and Jairam Ramesh are seen as certain to get high-octane positions in the new team, together with more than a dozen members of Rahul Gandhi's youth brigade. The policy positions now being fine-tuned by his youthful advisors will begin to get implemented, and the expectation is that Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi will shed some of the populism he encouraged as general secretary, given the corporate experience of many within his immediate circle.

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