The 2012 presidential election may well go down as a turning point in history. Not because of who becomes president and what he does. But because, for the first time, Sonia Gandhi did not have it her way all the way. To that extent, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of dynasty's unnatural hold on democracy in India. At the same time, the politicking highlighted the existential conundrum of Manmohan Singh. Both developments augur well for the future.
Five years ago Sonia Gandhi was the tzar of political India and her word was law. Even non-Congress leaders saw some extraterrestrial aura in her and were inclined to let her have her way. She used that position to make a nonentity the president of our great country. That president diminished the presidency, but the Congress President saw nothing wrong. As far as she was concerned, she was exercising her family's right.
That was then, this is now. She was keen, for wholly personal reasons, on keeping APJ Abdul Kalam out. She succeeded, but she had to pay a price for it – the price of accepting Pranab Mukherji as the Congress' official candidate. From the outset Pranab was seen as a natural. His acceptability to other parties gave him winnability as well. But it is well known that Sonia Gandhi was always cautious about him, unsure of the absoluteness of his loyalty. In a party where absolute personal loyalty to the family is paramount, he was never a favourite.
In the presidential run-up, although Pranab was widely discussed as an ideal candidate, Sonia Gandhi saw to it that no candidate was announced. Speculation spread, damaging the party and damaging Pranab Mukherji. Sonia's silence even triggered rumours that she was looking for a “surprise” candidate, another Pratibha Patil perhaps. But subsequent developments indicated that the challenges thrown at her forced her hands and she had to approve the name others had already approved.
Mamata Bannerji's challenge was the most serious. She is an eccentric and her motivations are suspect. But she made things move by announcing the names of Congress candidates – which made Congress spokesmen livid with rage – and then rejecting them. She promoted Kalam's name with such vigour that Sonia must have sensed danger and settled for the lesser evil.
Mamata also promoted Manmohan Singh's name as a second choice. This was calculated mischief. Sections of the Congress had been in favour of replacing Manmohan Singh. The recent Working Committee meeting heard strident criticism of him. Most of the attackers were currying favour with Sonia Gandhi with the theory that Rahul Gandhi would make a better prime minister. When Mamata jumped the gun, however, Congress flunkeys rushed to say that Manmohan Singh would remain in the prime minister’s chair even after the next general election.
And why not? Who is more pliable from Sonia Gandhi's viewpoint? Manmohan Singh has an international profile and an intellectual standing of his own. At the same time, he is capable of complete non-interference in the management of the country, including its economy. What more can Sonia Gandhi and her satraps ask for?
The big mystery of our times is why Manmohan Singh carries on the way he does. Every scandal, every policy failure, every problem that festers due to inaction brings him discredit – for no fault of his. He is allowed little real power and he exercises less. Why does he hang on? It was the economic crisis of 1991 that catapulted him to fame. Today's economic crisis has shown him up as a tragedy, with Standard & Poor's latest report specifically mentioning his ineffectiveness. The tragedy of the good and capable Manmohan Singh is the tragedy of India. The psychological – as distinct from constitutional – acceptance of the Indira dynasty's presumed supremacy has made politics and public life topsy turvey in our country. Now that we have seen the limits of Sonia Gandhi's power, perhaps things will get better from now on.